As you learn more and more about tennis, you’ll begin to understand how the different court surfaces may impact a player’s game. If you know a little bit about tennis, you know that Rafael Nadal is the king of clay courts. You may also know that Roger Federer is probably the best grass-court player of all-time. But why is that? Why are two of the all-time greatest tennis legends capable of performing so differently on different surfaces?
Basically different types of tennis court surfaces are constructed in different ways and using different materials. Their different construction and composition affect several aspects of a tennis match, including the velocity of the shots, the ball bounce, and the players’ capacity of moving around. Some players, like Roger Federer, adapt better to courts with faster surfaces, while others like Rafael Nadal perform better on slower and bouncier courts.
Most of us may have played on one or maybe two surfaces before, but what you may not know is that there are many more court surfaces out there, each one affecting the player’s game in a different way.
The 11 types of tennis court surfaces are acrylic, asphalt, concrete (called hard courts), artificial clay, clay, hybrid clay (clay courts), artificial grass, grass (grass courts), carpet, and others like wood and tile. Pro tournaments happen only on clay (slow), hard (medium), and grass (fast).
In addition to those, you may also find indoor courts with each one of the surfaces below, so we will also cover how indoor courts might impact your game.
How Are Tennis Courts Made?
While the surface of tennis courts may be different, the construction process for all courts generally involves the same steps. Tennis courts are made of several layers, and the surface we can see (clay, hard, grass) is usually the smallest layer of all. Standard tennis courts are made of 4 different layers – formation, foundation, regulating base, and wearing surface.
The first layer is usually the formation, and its goal is to serve as a barrier between the ground and the actual court. It is also known as the sub-grade, and it blocks roots and organic matter from damaging the court. The formation layer provides a flat soil for the court to be built on.
The second layer is called the foundation, and its main purpose is to prevent the court from frosting. Therefore, this layer is added in order to allow the court to drain, preventing any possible frosting. The foundation (also known as sub-base) usually measures between 14 and 28 mm and should lay about 150 mm below the actual surface. The drainage feature of a court’s foundation will differ depending on the surface; since clay and grass courts require some moisture, the foundation should not drain 100%.
The third layer is the regulating base, and its composition varies greatly depending on the surface. This layer serves to create a stable and flat surface where the actual surface will lay on.
Finally, the fourth and final layer is called the wearing surface. This is the layer we actually see when we look at a tennis court. This layer can be made out of several smaller layers, depending on the surface.
In 2008, when Gustavo Kuerten played his last match ever at Roland Garros, he was honored with an award that represented a piece of the tournament’s central court.
The Different Types of Tennis Court Surfaces
The ITF (International Tennis Federation) currently classifies tennis court surfaces into the following categories:
Acrylic / Polyurethane (Hard) Courts
Usually classified as hard courts, acrylic or polyurethane court surfaces are by far the most popular courts in the United States.
Hard tennis courts are made of a regulating base made with concrete or asphalt and have a finishing wearing surface made of acrylic or polyurethane. These substances are used to paint the white lines and the courts in different colors. These courts may also have a cushioned layer under the acrylic layer, depending on the desired court speed.
Courts with this surface are usually considered medium, medium-fast, or fast. The more sand added to the mixture used to paint the wearing surface, the slower the court becomes. The majority of the biggest professional tournaments are played on acrylic/polyurethane courts, including two Grand Slams (Australian Open and US Open), the ATP Finals, and 6 ATP 1000s (Indian Wells, Miami, Canadian Open, Cincinnati, Shanghai, and Paris).
While they tend to be fast, these courts can also be bouncy – allowing for long rallies. Hard courts are great for big servers, as it can become quite easy to hit a lot of aces. Generally, these courts become faster when exposed to sun and heat. This means that a player may have a different experience playing on the same court but during two different times of the day.
Clay courts are extremely popular in Europe and South America, and they are considered significantly slower than hard courts.
Clay tennis courts are made of a top layer of fine crushed aggregate – which can be stone, brick, shale, or other unbound material. Below this top layer, there is usually another thicker layer made out of the same material, but in a compacted form.
The construction of clay courts makes them slow and bouncy, which makes it great for strong baseliners and players who use a lot of topspin in their shots. Clay courts also count with an interesting feature, as players are able to slide around the court. Clay courts also require more maintenance than hard courts since they require frequent maintenance routine that involves irrigation, rolling, and brushing.
There are two main types of clay courts: red clay and green clay (also known as claytech or har-tru). Green clay courts are faster and more popular in the United States, while red clay courts are slower and more popular in South America and Europe. Red clay is the second most popular surface on the professional tour, as it is the surface of one Grand Slam (Roland Garros) and 3 ATP 1000s (Madrid, Monte Carlo, and Rome).
Rafael Nadal is considered the greatest clay-court player of all time. He has won a total of 12 Roland Garros and 59 clay court titles, and an overall clay-court winning percentage of 91.8% (436 wins and 39 losses).
Considered the most elegant of all surfaces, grass courts are somewhat difficult to find nowadays. Grass courts used to be a lot more popular in the past, and during 1905 and 1974 3 Grand Slams were played on grass (Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open). With the decline in popularity of courts with this surface, only one Grand Slam is currently played on grass (Wimbledon). No ATP 1000s are played on grass.
The reason behind the decline in popularity of grass courts is that they require a lot more maintenance and that they cannot be played on if there is even a little rain. For those reasons, clay courts and hard courts took over as the main tennis court surfaces.
Natural grass tennis courts are made of a thick layer made out of clay, silt, and sand, and a wearing surface made out of natural grass. These courts also require a drainage pipe in the foundation layer, in order to avoid water accumulation.
Grass courts tend to allow the ball to slide when it bounces, which makes the overall game a lot faster. In addition, the ball tends to stay low and close to the ground, which means that shots with slice are usually more effective than shots with topspin. Players who hit flat shots, big servers, and good volleyers are usually very successful on grass courts. It can be extremely difficult to break serves on grass courts, and as a result, some of the longest matches in tennis history were played on grass courts.
Asphalt tennis courts are usually constructed the same way as acrylic courts. However, asphalt courts do not have the final layer of acrylic added to them – which makes them more susceptible to environmental damage. With time, exposure to direct sunlight and heat can cause asphalt courts to develop cracks that may need to be repaired.
Usually, the initial costs to develop asphalt tennis courts are smaller than other types of surfaces. This is the reason why many public courts are constructed with an asphalt surface. However, with the costs to maintain and repair cracks, the overall long-term costs may end up being greater.
There are no professional tournaments played on asphalt courts, as all of the hard court tournaments are played on courts that have a final layer of acrylic or polyurethane applied to them.
In the past, carpet courts used to be seen often on the professional tour. In fact, the ATP 1000 in Paris used to be played on carpet. However, in 2009 the ATP stopped having major tournaments on carpet courts, in a campaign to move towards hard courts. With the change, the number of surfaces chosen for major professional tournaments went from 4 to 3 (hard, clay, and grass). In 2019, the ATP Challenger tour still counted with 3 carpet tournaments (Kaohsiung in Taipei & Eckental and Ismaning in Germany).
Carpet courts are constructed by creating asphalt layers similarly to hard courts and then laying a special carpet or mat on top of it. This carpet is usually manufactured in rolls. Carpet courts are known to be extremely fast, which favored big serves and big hitters. These courts are good for serve and volleyers as well.
Artificial clay courts have a similar feel to regular clay courts, but they are made quite differently.
Artificial clay courts are built by laying a special carpet as a base, instead of creating a layer of fine crushed aggregate. Once that step is done, a layer of sand or clay is added on top of it, which creates a similar feel to standard clay courts (slow shots and ability to slide).
This surface was developed in order to reduce maintenance requirements, as there is no need to water the court or to roll it. Artificial clay courts are somewhat new, so they are not nearly as popular as the courts mentioned above. However, they have been seen more frequently and their number is expected to increase. Currently, there are no tournaments played on such a surface.
Artificial clay courts may resemble clay courts, but the game feels different. While you have the ability to slide like on clay courts, the ball does not bounce as much on artificial clay. This makes the game faster than regular clay courts.
Tennis courts made out of concrete look and play very similarly to asphalt courts. The main difference is obviously the substance used during the construction. Concrete courts have been found to show fewer cracks than asphalt courts.
There are no professional tournaments played on concrete courts.
Tennis courts made with artificial grass are built similarly to artificial clay or carpet courts. After building a regulating base layer, a special turf is placed on top of it. The top layer looks like a grass court, but it requires a lot less maintenance and is much easier on the body.
This surface plays similarly to grass courts, as the ball ends up sliding and staying close to the ground. However, this surface is not as slippery as normal grass courts, which gives a lot more traction to players. They are a great alternative for tennis courts built in a private residence or a park. There are no professional tournaments played on artificial grass courts.
Hybrid Clay is a new trademarked technology developed recently in Europe, and it has already been recognized by the ITF as a new court surface. It gives the same feel as a regular clay court, but it requires a lot less maintenance. This surface is considered slow by the ITF.
Currently, there are only a handful of Hybrid Clay courts in the world (all in Europe), and there are no tournaments played on them. This new surface can be built on top of any other existing surface, which is extremely interesting. While the construction process is kept private (since it is trademarked), some of the benefits proposed by the HybridClay brand include less maintenance costs, the fact that it is frostproof, and market-leading water drainage.
Personally, I have not yet played on this surface but I have seen great reviews about them. The technology seems very promising and it looks like we could be seeing a lot more of these courts in the near future.
Some other court surfaces recognized by the ITF include tile, wood, and canvas. These courts are extremely rare and there are no tournaments played on them. They are usually much faster than other surfaces and can be quite difficult to play on.
I’ve played on a tennis court with a wood surface once in my life, in a tournament in Italy. The tournament was originally supposed to be played on clay, but due to several rain delays, we were sent to the nearest indoor court – which had a wooden-ish surface. I remember it being almost impossible to return any serve, and the overall experience barely felt like actual tennis.
Finally, while indoor tennis courts are not necessarily a different surface, they are worth mentioning. An indoor tennis court may have any of the surfaces mentioned above, but the roof makes the overall feel a little different.
For once, indoor tennis courts have no windows – which means that there is no wind coming in. Consequently, players have a more accurate idea of where their shots will land, which allows them to take more risks.
Secondly, indoor tennis courts are not exposed to the sun and heat as much as their indoor counterparts. Due to that fact, they do not suffer as much damage and do not become faster.
Finally, I find that indoor tennis courts seem to feel faster than outdoor tennis courts. I’ve heard that it happens because the air inside indoor courts is more compressed, giving the impression that the game is faster. I’m not sure if there’s any science behind these claims, so please don’t take them to heart.
Currently, only one ATP 1000 is played exclusively indoors (Paris). Several other ATP 500 & 250, and Challengers are also played indoors. In addition, as of 2020, the main courts of all Grand Slams have a retractable roof, which means that players may end up playing indoors in case of bad weather.
Tennis Court Surfaces Comparison
|Court Surface Type||Made Of||Speed||Tournaments|
|Acrylic/Polyurethane||Textured, pigmented, resin-bound coating||Medium & Medium Fast||US Open, Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Canadian Open, Cincinnati, Shanghai, and Paris|
|Clay||Sand-dressed and/or rubber-dressed surface with the appearance of clay||Slow||Roland Garros, Madrid, Monte Carlo, Rome|
|Grass||Synthetic surface with the appearance of natural grass||Fast||Wimbledon|
|Asphalt||Bitumen-bound aggregate||Medium & Medium Fast||None|
|Carpet||Textile or polymeric material supplied in rolls or sheets of finished product||Fast||Challengers|
|Artificial Clay||Unbound mineral aggregate||Slow & Medium Slow||None|
|Concrete||Cement-bound aggregate||Medium & Medium Fast||None|
|Artificial Grass||Natural grass grown from seed||Fast||None|
|Hybrid Clay||Clay-dressed systems supported by a carpet matrix||Slow||None|
|Other||E.g. modular systems (tiles), wood, canvas||Fast||None|
|Indoors||Indoor courts can have any of the surfaces mentioned above||All Speeds||Paris, Grand Slams (main courts have retractable roofs)|