This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Australian Tennis Magazine. Subscribe now!
When Howard Head switched his attention from designing snow skis to revolutionising racquets, tennis equipment technology in the game was transformed.
Technological refinements around shoes, racquets, strings and balls continues, providing you with a range of ever-improving options to ensure your game reaches its full potential.
That’s particularly true when it comes to choosing the equipment you utilise on different surfaces; here’s an outline of what will help you the most.
When it’s time to hit the clay, or Australia’s artificial equivalent En Tout Cas, the most appropriate shoe will be equipped with a softer sole, allowing you to move with comfort and freedom.
Historically, Dunlop Volleys have been the choice of many players due to the superior grip they provide through a herringbone sole, however a lack of ankle support and quick wearing material won’t suit all levels. Looking for a similar herringbone or feather tread sole with more support is ideal.
A relatively light-weight shoe is preferable on clay as you want to feel quick on your feet in order to move explosively off the mark and regularly change direction on the moving surface. Look for the criss-cross herringbone pattern covering the sole and a light material.
The ideal grass tennis shoe has a dimpled sole pattern for maximum traction and will prevent you from slipping and sliding when needing to stop suddenly.
Due to the relatively slippery surface and tendency for balls to stay low, your shoes need strong grip to dig into the court to avoid sliding, and allow you to maintain balance during strokes and footwork patterns.
Grass shoes can be more difficult to locate on the market; if this is the case your clay shoes can be used as a substitute on grass or synthetic grass.
Due to the unforgiving nature of a hard rubber surface, it’s beneficial to seek out a durable, rigid and supportive all-court shoe. Sliding on a hard court is less practical than on clay, but you will need to change direction on the spot, therefore ankle protection is a necessary precaution.
The ideal sole pattern is a combination of herringbone (clay shoe) and dimples (grass) for traction and mobility. Many modern shoe manufacturers have added breathability mechanics to their shoes, which is essential when playing during hot summer periods on a hard surface.
String tension is a personal selection for a player and won’t fluctuate drastically depending on the court surface. However clay surfaces can see players slightly reduce their string tension to generate additional power as the slow surface makes you work harder for pace.
As the ball often kicks up and arrives at a slower speed you want the ability to rip aggressively through your stroke to generate your own power.
Reducing the string tension will provide more give, meaning the ball will stay on your racquet strings for a fraction longer creating more leverage and extra power. Common string options in this range include a polyfibre-string and Big Banger or RPM blast, both will produce bite and spin off the racquet.
Classic grass court tennis rewards feel and touch play, particularly around the net and with your slice strokes. Natural gut is a popular string choice on grass given its aptitude for soft touch play and the ability to kill the ball efficiently at the right time, however, a full-gut string selection can be overwhelming so a blend between natural gut and your usual string choice is more common.
Take advantage of what a gut string has to offer by attacking the net, hitting volleys and using slice strokes. You also want to avoid the “trampoline effect” where the ball is flying off the racquet uncontrollably hence a combination of strings is ideal.
String choice on hard courts will depend on your game style and strengths as a player. Aim to match your strengths with a string type and tension. If you are seeking more power behind your strokes, for example, it’s wise to request a looser string. If you are after more control and spin then a tighter string tension is a better option.
It’s important to experiment with different string types, blends and tensions and have a hit with each to gauge what is most comfortable and suited to your game. Aim for a mid-range string tension to begin with, in line with the majority of pro players (see table left). Your racquet should have a recommended tension range on the inside of the handle if you’re unsure. A full-polyfibre string is common and uncomplicated, providing a combination of rallying potential and reward for any angles you find.
There are in excess of 190 official balls sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation and the ATP and WTA tour balls are selected with player input for each tournament.
The humble tennis ball has experienced the fewest technological changes over time, in essence the outside sphere is made up of two pieces of cloth, and the centre core is primarily rubber. What does fluctuate between brands is the internal pressure of the ball’s composition and weight, which will affect the pace, bounce and flight off your racquet.
A clay-friendly ball is harder and more resistant to compression, and will be quicker through the air, off the ground and is ideal for the slower En Tout Cas surface. Unless you like to grind a game out with never-ending rallies, in this case you would prefer a slower ball.
If you are playing on a fast court, or learning the game, aim for a slightly larger ball, which will slow the game down. A larger ball generates greater air resistance resulting in a slower pace through the air. If you are playing on grass and want some “pop” off your serve and volley game you would aim for a ball that is lively off the racquet face, and is not going to die in pace early in a match.
Your weapon of choice won’t change depending on the surface, but your racquet should always reflect your game style and strengths. The more common racquet alterations will revolve around strings and adjusting the weight with additions such
A spin-friendly racquet is ideal for clay but you also want to combine a power element to finish off the point on the slower surface. Babolat Pure Drive is a popular choice for players wanting to hit with spin – see Rafael Nadal if you have any doubt!
On grass there can be a tendency to side with a slightly lighter racquet to get underneath a low skidding ball. On the other hand, ball control on a grass court is paramount therefore a racquet that’s slightly heavier in weight, with a smaller and thinner head should provide less power but more control.
There is a diverse range of quality racquets currently on the market, and all racquets
will have suitability for hard surfaces. Look for a racquet between 95 and 100 square inches that will provide a greater sweet spot, and remember it all relates to the style of game you want to employ.
Be comfortable with the uncomfortable
While most players will have a surface they most enjoy playing or competing on, it’s the time that you spend on your least preferred one that might ultimately prove the most effective for development.
Pushing yourself to compete on your least favourite surface is an opportunity to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. You’ll learn to problem solve on a range of courts, which ultimately increases your competitiveness and ability under pressure.
These basic tips will help you contest matches or tournaments on an unfamiliar surface:
+ Practise on a range of surfaces at every opportunity.
+ If you can’t practise on the surface that you’ll be competing on, practise on one that’s close to it – En Tout Cas, for example, might help if you’re preparing to compete on clay.
+ Keep it simple. Subtle adjustments are often easier to manage in your game than dramatic ones.
+ Make your match plans simple, especially in the tournament’s early rounds.
+ Maintain familiar playing routines, even if the surface is not.
+ Invest the time that’s needed. Along with extra practice, you may need longer warm ups.
+ Value the experience as much as the win. Even if you lose your match or are out of a tournament, make the most of practise opportunities.
Top equipment tips
- Never wear grass court shoes on a hard surface and always wear in new shoes in practice to avoid blisters.
- If you’ve just had your racquet restrung, be sure to get a practice hit in before you play a match.
- The racquet that your favourite pro uses won’t necessarily be the one that’s right for you. Test a few to establish your best choice.