Matt Zemek

The words you are about to read on Kiki Bertens’ victory over Caroline Garcia in the Madrid Open semifinals have value for any tennis player, but they contain a special degree of significance for any North American player who doesn’t have the foggiest idea of how to play on red clay. If you are a teaching pro or a college coach who wants to develop a younger player’s sense of how to play red-clay tennis, Bertens’ win over Garcia on Friday offers a great example.

We tennis writers often write about players and their psychological makeup or their results (disappointing or excellent), but this piece will focus on tactics and execution, because the clarity of Bertens’ demonstration was so profound against Garcia. Tennis is tennis no matter where it is played, but it is unavoidable that clay allows for possibilities which don’t exist to the same extent on other surfaces. Bertens, raised on clay, intuitively understands these nuances, and at age 26, after periods of trial and error, she is putting all the pieces together by making her first Premier Mandatory final.

Clay, it is often said, rewards patience. This is true, but there is something which has to be said on the heels of that statement: Patience is not the same thing as passivity. Patience is better expressed as “not trying to win points in one shot.” If three shots can very cleanly win a point, be willing to play three shots instead of one. This is where Madison Keys and a lot of other big-hitting Americans fall short. Bertens is a very good teacher of this concept, the Garcia match being a classic illustration.

When opponents either hit good lobs or intentional moonballs in an attempt to defuse pace and take a player out of rhythm, it is easy for the player to go to the extremes in response. One extreme is to be very aggressive and go for an overhead smash from a baseline position. Roger Federer often does this and often makes it look easy, but not everyone is Federer. The ambitious baseline smash is a very difficult shot, and only the best racquet skills can pull it off. For most players, it represents impatience.

The other common response to a lob or moonball is to accept the fact that the point has been reset, and to accordingly lob the ball back with little weight or bite on the shot. This is often necessary if the lob is especially good, but if the lob or moonball is not too close to the baseline, one should not think that a normal rally ball should be the “default setting.”

Bertens fully grasped this idea on Friday. When Garcia hit half-lobs or moonballs which landed a few feet inside the baseline, Bertens didn’t go for the high-risk overhead, but she also didn’t casually roll the ball back. She struck a middle ground with heavy topspin directed to the corners of the court, but not aiming for the lines, giving herself a foot of margin relative to the baseline and the sideline. This angled topspin was like a kick serve, only with a groundstroke, and not to the corner of the service box, but to the corner of the whole court.

Bertens seized upon Garcia’s evident discomfort with her own erratic game, but Bertens also noticed Garcia’s distaste for the heavy balls which were coming at her all afternoon. Bertens clearly saw that with angled yet high-margin topspin, she could gain leverage on points without taking too many risks. She could be creative with angles yet not feel the need to end points immediately. Two or three follow-up shots — relentlessly pounding Garcia with deep topspin — would consistently get the job done. This is the embodiment of patience on clay: It is not a passive mindset, but controlled aggression which thinks in sequences, not in single shots which try to end points right away. Brick by brick, Bertens used crushed red brick to her advantage, hitting heavy balls whiched weighed down — and eventually wore down — a flustered opponent who never felt comfortable.

North Americans are so used to 1-2 tennis — big serve, big forehand, end the point right then — that this notion of stacking shots on top of each other with a combination of margin and angle does not occur to them. The focus on ending points quickly is so profound that when long rallies emerge, conventional crosscourt backhand exchanges become the fallback plan. Kiki Bertens shows a different way of playing on clay: Spins and sequential thought processes do require a willingness to hit extra shots, but they can reliably break down the opponent while opening up the court.

Let this be a tactical lesson to anyone whose powerful strokes are just right for hardcourts, but who needs a winning solution on red clay.


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