Surface speeds vary from venue to venue and even from year to year. Wimbledon – the only Grand Slam still to be played on grass – was famously slick in the 90s making it a happy stomping ground for the big serve and volleyers.
These days – not so much.
In this article we’ll be having a look at why that is, how the other surfaces rank for pace and what external factors could be affecting court speed.
Grass courts are around 10-20% faster than hard or clay courts.
And it all comes down to friction. Slick blades of grass offer very little. So when the ball bounces it skips away, maintaining its velocity.
What’s more the bounce remains low. While this doesn’t actually make the ball faster it gives the receiver less time to make their shot so it quickens the play.
This is an advantage to the big servers who have historically thrived at the All England Club and makes matches much quicker.
However, in 2001 Wimbledon reseeded the grass, shifting from a 70/30 rye/red grass mix to 100% rye. This marked an immediate slowing of the courts, lengthening rallies and allowing baseliners back in. The next year’s men’s finalists were Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian.
The slowest tennis surface is indisputably clay.
Despite the name, most clay courts are formed from crushed red brick. The grittiness of the surface causes enormous friction, slowing the ball down by as much as 43% and making the ball spin which kicks it upwards.
In contrast to grass, this added bounce gives players longer to make their shot, increasing the perception of a slow court.
This is why classic baseliners such as a Rafael Nadal – aka the King of Clay – do well on the surface.
Still – even clay can be quick. In 2012 the Madrid Open experimented with a Blue Clay surface, much faster than the red stuff, upsetting many baseline specialists in the process.
Traditionally the speed of hard court surfaces falls somewhere between grass and clay. For that reason it’s often known as the ‘democratic court’.
But hard court speeds can vary enormously depending on their exact composition. They’re made of a combination of concrete or asphalt and acrylic resin but the less grit used in the mix, the smoother the finish. Which means less friction and more speed.
In the early 2000s US and Australian Open courts slowed down enormously, tipping the balance back in favour of longer rallies. But in 2017 in Melbourne that changed. Courts were relaid creating a surface arguably even quicker than Wimbledon.
Back in 2020 the USTA shifted from their previous surface Decoturf to the acrylic resin of Laykord at Flushing Meadows. USTA Director of Operations Danny Zausner stated that the new courts played 20-30% faster than the previous year’s.
As with the grass, hard courts’ speed can change the more they’re used. The players’ shoes smooth out the surface, reducing friction and quickening them up.
What is the hardest surface to play on?
The answer to that really depends on your style of play. Big server? You’re probably going to favour a grass court. But in terms of pure physical demands the relentlessness of clay is probably the most gruelling.
What else affects surface speed?
In hot weather the pressure inside a tennis ball increases leading to more bounce and faster play.
By contrast, some players claim that extra humidity causes play to slow down – although the science doesn’t really back that up.
What will definitely slow down play is rain. Drizzle on the ball can weigh it down. And of course a big downpour can stop the game entirely. Just ask the crowds at Wimbledon.
At high altitude air pressure drops which means less resistance to slow the ball down. Consequently, competitions at high altitude venues such as the Guadalajara Open use special balls to slow down play. Which brings us to our final factor…
Ever wondered why servers take so much care selecting a ball? They’re looking for the least fluffy ones. The less fuzz on the ball the more aerodynamic.
Likewise, the higher the pressure of the ball, the quicker and higher it bounces. Balls will slow down the longer they’re out of their pressurised cans. Which is why they’re changed every nine games in a pro match. And why it’s important to buy new balls regularly.
New Balls Please?
Looking to speed up your own game? Why not take a look at our round up of the best tennis rackets for advanced players? Or – if you feel the need for more speed – check out our guide to the fastest serves of all time.
Do I need different tennis shoes for different surfaces?
Ideally, especially if you’re playing on a court type regularly, it’s best to have shoes that suit that particular surface.
Tennis shoes vary in design depending on the court. For example hard court shoes require an extra durable sole while clay court shoes feature a tight herringbone style grip to allow for sliding.
For more on this check out our guide to selecting tennis shoes.