Synthetic courts are the order of the day

The BIGGEST DIFFERENCE in playing on a synthetic surface is the movement — you have to pick your feet up, writes RAMESH KRISHNAN.

By the time this appears in print, we will be well into the hard court season that culminates in the US Open Championships. We in India talk about the hard court as the synthetic court. What it is is a sub-surface of asphalt with some coats of paint. The asphalt is laid like a road except that the levels have to be precise. This is the surface that is in use both in the US Open and the Australian Open championships.

Up until 1974, both the US Open and the Australian Open Championships were conducted on lawn courts — which meant that along with Wimbledon, three out of the four Grand Slam events were held on lawn courts. But in 1975, the US Open made the change — first to a clay court for the following three years and then to the hard court since 1978. This tournament is played on a surface by the brand name `deco turf'. The Australian Open followed suit in 1988 and is played on `rebound ace'. These are just generic terms.

Why the switch over from grass? World over, there is a feeling that grass is not a practical surface. You cannot play on it year round. For instance, in the UK, the grass courts are opened for play sometime in May after the cold months and you can play on them till September/October. And even during this period play is restricted during wet weather. With the price of real estate soaring in today's world, this is not an optimal use of land.

So, even in the UK, which is considered the home of lawn courts, many clubs are replacing them with other surfaces.

When grass courts were being replaced, synthetic surfaces seemed to be the natural choice. So much so, you have tournaments on this surface in all continents. In Asia, where tennis was played essentially on clay and grass, both have all but disappeared and synthetic surfaces are the order of the day.

The advantages of a synthetic surface are:

1. You could play on it year round. Even after very heavy rains, all you have to do is to wipe the court dry and resume play.

2. Maintenance is minimal. This is becoming a big factor even in India.

3. It offers a true bounce and gives reasonable opportunity to both the attacking and the defensive player.

The main disadvantage of the surface, I see, is that it is very harsh on the body. Unlike on a grass or clay court, your body comes to a sudden halt each and every time and this is a lot of strain on the joints. On a hot day, the surface magnifies the temperatures. This is very pertinent in India. The surface is also very severe on both tennis balls and tennis shoes. Both need to be changed more often.

The speed of the synthetic surface can be made to order. They have various techniques for laying them — right from painting horizontally or vertically to increasing the sand content in the paint. But typically, the older the surface, the faster it plays as it gets smoother.

However, the biggest difference in playing on a synthetic surface is the movement — you have to pick your feet up. A clay court player likes to slide into his shots whereas on a synthetic court this is not possible.