The perception that big-serving, hard-hitting players find their powers diminished on clay has held fast and firm in tennis over the years, but it’s probably time to let go of that perception now.
Petra Kvitova won her third Madrid Open over the weekend. The player most closely tied to the lawns of Wimbledon as a two-time champion may also be called one of the biggest threats on clay right now.
As the slowest of surfaces, red clay is supposed to reward the players with games built on spin, retrieval, finesse and consistency—not the players with the biggest serves and the biggest forehands.
The evidence over the last decade tells a different story, though. The winner of the last seven French Open titles has been a so-called “power player.” Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko are famous for bashing the ball.
Some might tell you that the gradual slowing of courts on tour has made the difference in court speeds between all the surfaces negligible at this point.
Much of the credit, though, has to go to the players themselves. They’ve shown a willingness to break trend and adapt, even subtly, their games to a surface that historically resembled a quagmire for power players. They’ve figured out that even as a power player, power alone isn’t a winning a formula on clay. A little guile, patience and spin goes a long way.
Kvitova has never been known to be a particularly adept mover, but in her championship performance on Saturday, she covered the court perfectly, deployed angles, used more spin and played defensively as well. She hit behind Kiki Bertens when she wanted to wrestle away momentum in a rally, and she doggedly stayed in rallies until she could get the upper hand, rather than pulling the trigger prematurely.
If Kvitova’s success in Madrid, Karolina Pliskova’s title in Stuttgart over fellow big-hitter CoCo Vandeweghe, and the last seven years of French Open history teaches us anything, it’s that today’s power players can also be today’s clay-court specialists.