What do you think of when you think of clay court tennis? Besides thinking of Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem slugging it out in the French Open final, you probably think of dirty shoes, heavy topspin, and of course, long rallies. But, an under-appreciated aspect of playing well on clay is having the mental endurance of winning points against fast, elite athletes on a slow surface. A player must hit with enough margin to consistently batter the opponent, but be able to occasionally lower the margins and blast a winner.
And that is where confidence comes into play. On hard courts and grass, a player with a losing run of form might be able to win a bunch of quick points on serve and utilizing first-strike tennis. That player wouldn’t have to maintain a high standard for long rally after long rally, as his/her opponent kept getting balls back, asking questions of the low confidence player’s ability to finish him/her off.
Example: Marco Cecchinato
Marco Cecchinato played a match in Hamburg Tuesday against Federico Delbonis. Cecchinato won an ATP Tour title in Buenos Aires earlier this year, but currently is on a bad run of form. Cecchinato had lost seven matches in a row, and nine of his last ten matches. Of those ten matches, seven of them were on clay. Clay court tournaments represent the majority of the tournaments that Cecchinato has played this year, with nine tournaments played on clay and seven on hard and grass combined.
Cecchinato won a first set tiebreak in over an hour and was serving for the match up 5-4 (40-0). Five points later he was broken. Soon, he had lost the second set in a tiebreak and was into a third set after over two hours on court. Could Cecchinato, despite his recent form, summon the level needed to win a third set against a player who has won eight of his past nine matches (all on clay)? No. Delbonis won 6-7(5) 7-6(3) 6-2. The player that had once won an incredibly close fourth-set tiebreak to beat Novak Djokovic at the 2018 French Open became a mere shell of himself.
A look at Jaume Munar
Coming into the ATP clay court event in Bastad last week, Jaume Munar had lost eight matches in a row, including four straight matches on clay. While earlier in the season, Munar was making headway on the ATP Tour–including beating Alexander Zverev on the clay of Marrakech–his season had come to a standstill. In Munar’s first round match in Bastad, he was set to take on fellow Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena.
Munar lost the first set from a break up, but fought back to win the second set. In the third set, he was up a break at 3-1*, but what happened? Munar did not win a game for the rest of the match. Munar didn’t even have another game point. Carballes Baena won 6-4 3-6 6-3. Munar lost his ninth match in a row. In that third set, Carballes Baena got a bunch of balls in play and asked Munar if he could get over the finish line. Munar, having lost eight matches prior, couldn’t do it.
Opposite example: Nicolas Jarry
On the flip side, Nicolas Jarry has shown the opposite trajectory. Earlier this season, he was a bit of a mess. To start the 2019 season, Jarry won his first match in Doha, and then proceeded to lose six matches in a row (excluding Davis Cup), including every match on the clay court Golden Swing. This included match in Rio de Janeiro against Roberto Carballes Baena where he had 3 match points in the tiebreak, blowing them all and then losing the match.
After middling results, Jarry lost in the final qualifying round of a 500 level clay court tournament in Barcelona, but got in as a lucky loser and made the quarterfinals, beating Alexander Zverev along the way. In his first round match, he won in three sets over Marcel Granollers, who had beaten him in qualifying. While there were still twists and turns in the season, he can look to this one tournament as a major turning point in his season.
That season came to a peak this past week in Bastad, where Jarry won the title without losing a set. It was his first career ATP Tour title. In the final against Juan Ignacio Londero, despite being up a break early, Jarry found himself down *6-4 in the tiebreak. If he was in that position earlier in the season, he might have overhit on a normal rally ball. But, this time was different. Jarry won the set, and the match, for his first ATP Tour title.
Lessons about clay
So, how do the stories of Marco Cecchinato, Jaume Munar, and Nicolas Jarry have to do with one another? These are all players whose best surface is clay–and either currently are struggling or struggled earlier this season. These players all have demonstrated the importance of playing with confidence on clay.
The confidence level necessary to succeed on the ATP Tour is very high. When playing on a surface like clay, where clay court specialists are getting lots of balls back and free points on serve are sparse, it becomes a mental battle to succeed when one’s game is in a rut.
A player can fall from beating Novak Djokovic at the French Open in a fourth set tiebreaker to blowing three match points in a row and losing to Federico Delbonis in Hamburg. Confidence can be a funny thing. But, that’s just how the ATP Tour rolls. It’s a place where you can outplay the best and play incredibly clutch–and also choke when it seems impossible. It just depends on the one’s form and confidence.
The nature of clay courts just exacerbates this and rears its ugly head for those who play a lot on this surface. Unless your name is Rafael Nadal, of course.
Jaume Munar actually beat Malek Jaziri from a set down in the first round of Gstaad to snap his nine-match losing streak. Who knows? Maybe this tournament will give him the belief that he can consistently win on the ATP Tour again, just as Barcelona did with Jarry. And Cecchinato coming so close to beating a good clay courter in Delbonis shows he isn’t too far off.
But, it’s clear that success on the ATP Tour, especially on clay, can be a revolving door. Ride the waves of confidence and success while you can.