The moment Ankita Raina first stepped on it, she felt the difference. “Not weird, actually, I was more excited about the prospect of playing on a surface with a different colour,” Raina later said.
For someone who has been a professional tennis player since 2009, it’s odd to have experienced a new surface on the tour after more than a decade. But that’s how rare playing the sport on green clay is, which the Indian did at the ITF W100 Charleston tournament last week.
So uncommon is the surface that it currently hosts just one top-level event throughout the season – the WTA Volvo Car Open in Charleston (formerly called Family Circle Cup). Even at the ITF and Challenger level, a rung below the ATP and WTA tours, only a handful of tournaments are dressed with green clay; and they’re all in the US, even as red clay remains the norm at the European clay courts.
To gain entry to the South Carolina ITF event, Raina had to play the qualifiers. With tournaments few and far between this pandemic-hit season and players jostling to play in as many as they can, Raina hopped from a hard-court tournament in Tyler, Texas, to Charleston and got only a solitary day’s practice before playing a match on a surface she had never seen before.
The preparation process, hence, comprised hearsay. “I’d heard that it’s not as slow as red clay,” she said. “And as I began playing on the green clay, I enjoyed it.”
Raina lost in the second qualifying round to American Claire Liu and was also beaten in her opening round of doubles, partnering Colombian teen Osorio Serrano. But after these three matches on the alien surface, she still felt more at home than on the red dirt. “It’s similar to playing on a hard court. Of course, the points are longer than on hard but it’s faster than the normal clay that we play on,” she said. “You don’t slip like you usually do on red clay and the ball does not bounce too high.”
Consistent bounce is the USP of this green surface. The origin of the use of green clay for tennis courts goes back to the early 1930s, when a certain HA Robinson came across a company in Maryland that was producing roofing granules, which he was sure could be used to manufacture fast-drying courts.
Two courts were built using the material in 1932; the experiment was a success. “Mr. Robinson used his initials (HAR) and, as the story goes, his wife called it a surface with a true bounce and a true green colour, resulting in the Har-Tru brand,” said Pat Hanssen, president of Har-Tru, now one of the world’s biggest manufacturing companies for tennis courts of various kinds and the leading manufacturer of the green clay surface.
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Har-Tru has courts in 23 countries around the world apart from the US. According to Hanssen, the demand for green clay surface comes predominantly from within North America, Canada included.
The complex process of its manufacturing begins from a Charlottesville quarry. “The green clay, which is actually finely crushed aggregate – an igneous metabasalt, to be precise – is pulled from a vein of stone that runs through the Appalachian Mountains. Much of it is underground and impossible to access and requires tunnelling to get to it,” Hanssen said.
Green clay was in vogue at the elite American tennis stage before the hard court revolution. The US Open was played on the Har-Tru green clay courts from 1975 to 1977 at Forest Hills. The tournament moved over to the hard courts of Flushing Meadows in the following year.
But Charleston kept the surface alive, with the tournament attracting the biggest female pros; Serena Williams is a three-time champion. While this surface doesn’t experience the mood swings that red clay does due to weather conditions (remember Roland Garros in autumn this year?), the natural colour remains widely preferred around the world.
“A natural, red clay court plays in a very wide range. It can be very slow and heavy when wet and extremely fast and slippery when dry. Green clay does not have these swings,” Hanssen explained. “But red clay is more resilient in terms of bounce, meaning when the ball is hit with topspin it tends to bounce faster and higher than on green,” he added.
Red clay is also much more difficult to maintain and requires twice as much time to keep in good condition. While the green version also needs daily care and maintenance as well as abundance of water, it has its positives. “Green clay surfaces are easy to construct and maintain, easy to repair and dry quickly. It allows safe, controlled footwork and sliding. It’s easier on the body than hard courts. It plays very consistent in all weather and in a narrow speed range with limited height to the bounce,” Hanssen said.
Also, it doesn’t get as messy as the red dirt, where sliding can come with its pitfalls, including extra rounds of laundry. “I personally don’t slide much even on red clay. But yes, this is not as dirty as red clay can get,” Raina said.
Hanssen, though, doesn’t see green as a viable second option or replacement to the red on the largely European clay-court swing. “All courts over there are red clay. It is culturally accepted and there is considerable knowledge on how to care for it. It would be costly to change to green versus keeping the red,” he said.
That is precisely why the blue clay experiment at the Madrid Masters was widely criticised and didn’t last beyond the year of its introduction in 2012. But Raina, who got a first-hand taste of its green cousin, wouldn’t mind playing on it more often on the pro tours. “It has the benefits of clay while being faster; you can play a hard-court game on it,” she said. “So, for my game, I’d prefer this over red clay.”