Minor League Clay Court Tennis

The clay court minor league season started up in Houston and a few unexpected players will meet in the final. Oh, and someone got married.

Let’s warm up for the clay court season by going to a minor league event in Houston. Okay, I’m being a bit obnoxious but how else can you describe an ATP event where John Isner, the very tall epitome of hard serving hard court tennis, makes it to the quarterfinals?

The clay in Houston is red this year not green but it’s not the Tuileries Gardens red clay. Those beautiful gardens next to the Louvre used to be a red clay quarry for tiles long ago – hence tuile, the French word for tile. According to a reader who left a comment on Lexa’s excellent post about the vagaries of clay court tennis earlier this week, the Houston clay is a mixture of red stone and brick dust.

I’m assuming this means that it’s faster than the green court and slower than the true red court, but it’s hard to tell because there are few true clay courts players here to test it out with their high bouncing kickers. Most everyone trots out their hard court game as if we were still back in Indian Wells. Take Wayne Odesnik.

Odesnik got to the third round of the French Open last year and he beat Guillermo Canas in three straight tiebreakers along the way so he’s one of the better U.S. clay courters. Today he played Bjorn Phau in the semifinals to try and get to his first ATP final. First of all, the court doesn’t look like a demolition derby with skid marks left and right. It looks well-groomed and Odesnik almost fell over on a forehand running passing shot – a winner by the way – because he expected his lead foot to land and grab. Instead, Odesnik’s body was ready to turn back to the middle of the court but his feet were still moving towards the stands.

You’re supposed to slide in to those shots Wayne. It worked out, though, because Phau doesn’t have much firepower – he’s a small guy who plays his size. He’ scrappy, though, and he’s back up to number 77 after disappearing for a few years. Which reminds me. I was reading an article in Bill Simons’ excellent publication Inside Tennis when I realized that I hadn’t seen Donald Young lately. It seems he’s all the way down to number 161 and having trouble getting out of qualifiers. I feel for him.

Roger Federer married Mirka Vavrinec is his hometown of Basel, Switzerland today. Just thought I’d throw that in here. He’ll spend his honeymoon taking a wild card in Monte Carlo. For years Roger has played the minimum number of events possible but now he’s scrambling a bit to get some consistency in his game. Thus the last minute wild card.

Back to Houston.

Lleyton Hewitt took on Evegeny Korolev in the other semifinal. Hewitt reminds of Andy Roddick. They’re both stiffs. Just kidding. What I mean is that they both have stiff takebacks on their two-handed backhands because they extend their arms as you can see below:

Hewitt’s a small guy who is a consummate counterpuncher and exceptional competitor who won his slams before power took over the game. He has some power because he was able to tool up his serve to hit aces, but that stiffy backhand doesn’t help and I always thought his forehand was a bit funky too. It looks like it’s all arm because he brings the racket back so far, but when I looked a bit closer today I saw something else. I compared Hewitt’s forehand with slow motion videos of Carlos Moya’s forehand because he’s another guy who has a high takeback. See what I mean:

The angle of the camera is different and Moya is hitting an inside out forehand, but I see hip movement followed by trunk movement followed by shoulder movement followed by the racket follow-through in Moya’s swing – his body unfolds in segments then he hits the ball. In Hewitt’s swing, those body parts don’t seem to follow one after the other as much as they move together.

For sure, Hewitt’s style is responsible for his hip surgery – his body has a few million tennis court miles on it, but maybe he could have lasted a bit longer before needing surgery if his swing technique had allowed his body to work a bit more efficiently. His competitiveness hasn’t worn out, thankfully, and Korolev helped Hewitt out by hitting for the fences on every point, and so Hewitt is into his first final in two years with a straight set win.

Come back again next week when the major league clay court season starts with the Masters event in Monte Carlo.