When in Rome
Foro Italico, the venue that hosted the Rome Masters series, is one of the most picturesque settings tennis has to offer. Court Pietrangeli, with marble sculptures surrounding it, forms the spectacular centrepiece.
My highlight of the tournament was beating Marin Cilic in a late day match on a packed outside court. Having lost to Cilic in all three previous encounters, it felt good to earn my first win over him and make my way to the third round.
Alas, my journey in Rome ended when I fell to sixth seed Tomas Berdych. I have come up short against the Czech a few times now and as frustrating as it is, I do believe I’m getting closer to beating him. I look forward to our next match-up.
People are often surprised to hear how much I enjoy playing on clay. While it does present its own challenges, I truly believe it’s a surface that in fact suits my game. 2013 has yielded my best returns on clay – I have reached an ATP 250 final and the round of 16 in two Masters 1000 tournaments.
I’m not what most would regard as a clay court specialist. At 6ft8, my aggressive style of tennis is one most people associate with hard court success. I possess a big serve and hit heavy groundstrokes deep into the court. I do, however, believe that the clay surface enhances my game.
It would be impossible to forget the words my father imparted upon me: “You have to be able to win from the baseline.” That is a phrase he has repeated ever since I began playing the game.
As such, I have worked all my life learning to do just that: win points playing from the baseline. As of late, I have put in much effort and hard graft in coming forward to the net to finish points and add variety to my game.
Although these changes have allowed me to make use of my natural abilities to win points, my game largely remains based around aggressive play from the baseline - making clay a surface very well suited to my style of tennis.
In pondering the theory that the heavy hitters can also succeed on clay, I have noted some more specific reasons my game is particularly suited to the surface despite the popular belief that clay is a surface ruled by ‘grinders’.
The reigning king of clay in recent years has been the seemingly infallible ‘grinder’ Rafael Nadal. I don’t think too many people were surprised to see him clinch his seventh title in Rome on Sunday.
While Roger Federer wasn’t at his best in the final, Nadal didn’t make it any easier for him with a superb display of consistency and shot-making. Nadal is, again, the man to beat in Paris.
There are a few changes in the game itself that has allowed players like myself to improve their performances on clay. Historically, players who didn’t grow up playing on clay courts found that time of the year the toughest.
Many never came to terms with the daunting differences between clay courts and hard courts, both in terms of movement and point construction. Yet, I believe that this trend is changing as players have become more physical. The physicality of today’s players means they are largely capable of winning matches primarily with their serve and groundstrokes. As a result, their games are increasingly well suited for success on clay courts.
There are several areas of my game in particular that I believe benefit specifically from playing on clay. Firstly, since my serve has more bounce to it on the ‘dirt’, my opponents have to hit returns above their shoulder level, which typically results in shorter and less effective returns.
Secondly, from the baseline the higher bounce of clay courts helps me with my contact point. As a ‘giant’ on tour, my natural contact point for comfortably hitting groundstrokes is much higher than average and consequently I have to bend much lower than others to hit most shots. On the higher bouncing clay courts, the proverbial ‘bend your knees’ isn’t as important in trying to hit good groundstrokes.
Finally, coupled with the last point, on clay I can get the ball to bounce up higher on my opponent making it harder for them to hit good balls. This aspect in particular allows me to control the point more effectively. It gives me a little bit more time to hit each shot, as the ball does not skid on clay courts, which in turn allows me to hit with more power.