This Italian clay may shape Britain's next Tennis Star

This Italian clay may shape Britain

Clay Court Services' Peter Sutton dream about British player winning the French Open one day as a result of playing tennis on the red dirt.

Clay Court Services' Peter Sutton dream about British player winning the French Open one day as a result of playing tennis on the red dirt.

One glimpse at the men's world rankings is all it takes to understand the vital role that the clay courts play in producing world-class tennis players.

When we count, eighteen of the top 200 players are Italian, 14 are French, 14 are Spanish and 10 are from Argentina, and natural clay is the most popular surface all these countries use.

For all of their money and resources, only nine are from the US and five from the United Kingdom, where hard courts and synthetic grass rules the game.

It is the same case when we consider the women's game. Five of the top 200 are French, six are Spanish and from the UK just three players come.

In a recent interview at Betway, Peter Sutton says, that's not a coincidence, who turned his hobby into his job when he set up his own business, Clay Court Services, in 2012.

That, he says, is the only way the UK will produce players who are as good as Kyle Edmund - to win the 2019 French Open in the latest tennis betting - or Jo Konta, 23 and 41 in the world respectively, never mind generational talents such as Andy Murray, unhappily is all set to retire after playing another Wimbledon Championship.

"There's a cultural conviction that the clay doesn't suit the UK," says Sutton a former club pro who is now dedicated to bringing more natural clay courts to these shores. "But from a coach's perspective, to teach a youngster on a slow surface is much easier. He explains when you learn to drive, you straight away don't get in a Formula 1 car, you need to start from basic at 20mph.

Explaining the health benefits of playing on this surface Sutton says, "There is less stress on the knees and the back. I've spoken to top-class coaches who say it has added 10 years onto their coaching lives."

We need to remember that when you're on a hard court for seven or eight hours per day, your body can hurt quite dramatically.

"This clay courts can help you slide. Top professionals are playing such a harsh game, but with the slide, helping absorb the impact on joints and ligaments they can fly into shots."

Sutton further explains, "There are more rallies, the ball keeps coming back. It also teaches players so much more about persistence, shot production and the intellectual side of the game."

These clay courts are made from shale, a sedimentary rock that is difficult to sustain in bad weather, this is the reason why they are not popular in the UK. And they give "a lot of bad bounces" if not well maintained.

But "the best" is what Sutton is only interested in, that is the reason why Clay Court Services are the exclusive suppliers to the UK of Terre Davis clay, the company primarily based in Cremona, Northern Italy, that supplies clay to the Rome Masters, Monte Carlo Masters and several other tennis federations worldwide.

Sutton recalls, "The UK's first court built from Terre Davis' clay was installed at his home-based club in Little Aston, Birmingham, before installing others around the country".

"Terre Davis hadn't actually exported to the UK – they didn't think there was a market there," he says. "However for a small budget, we were in a position to do a little bit of a makeover for some small clubs to get their clay courts to play better."

His work caught the attention of the LTA, so much so that four courts are now being constructed at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton.

He says, "It's a decent start, but need to see from a cultural perspective, whether they think this is the way forward."

Sutton cites an example from the other facet of the world that he believes the UK is capable of emulating.

"In the '60s and '70s, Australia ruled world tennis; but that started to drop off," he says. "If you take a look at the stats, that's is the result of they have been producing big guys who were just hitting the ball at a million miles an hour and never anticipated the ball to come back.

"I spoke to an ex-pro, Terry Rocavert, who used to play on the clay circuit. He went back to the Australian federation with this Italian clay.

"They constructed over 40 clay courts, including seven or eight at Melbourne Park, and you will be surprised to know that now they've got 11 players in the top 200."

The climate in the UK means that replacing all the synthetic and hard courts with the red dirt is just not practical, however, Sutton has gone to great lengths to ensure that the courts that can be constructed are taken care as skilfully as they need to be.

He says, "Groundsmen in the UK are basically used to sweeping the synthetic courts, hoovering or brushing them."

"With the LTA, I'm flying out the head technical director of Foro Italico (home of the Rome Masters). He's the equivalent of the head groundsman at Wimbledon, but his area of expertise is clay.

"The LTA want him to train our groundsmen to help maintain the courts in excellent condition because they are not just going to be played on by top professionals but the up-and-coming youngsters behind them.

"There must be expertise in ensuring that the courts are in good condition."

The success of the venture won't be let down by a lack of trying from Sutton, who is aged 63, "is more passionate about tennis and playing on clay than ever".

He shares, "I love to see the players play on this Italian clay court. I love watching them play, learning and grinding. I find it exciting, I'm wondering is there going to be a good effect from this."

"I hope top players [eventually] have these as a facility, to get it into their system, rather than have to go down to London or go out to La Manga (Spain's Tennis Centre).

"Andy Murray went out to La Manga when he was 14 or 15 and learnt to play on clay. That's where he grinded away. It would have been great to have that here."

One of Murray's greatest achievements, beyond winning three slams and becoming world No. 1, was reaching the French Open final in 2016. He learnt his basics on clay courts as a young player that continued with him forever.

Sutton believes that one day, a Brit might be able to go one better, writing on his website: "My dream is that one day a British player will win the French Open as a result of having the chance to play tennis on a UK clay court."

That hasn't been done since Sue Barker in 1976, however, his progress should continue.

Sutton's vision might not be as unrealistic as it might presently appear. Sooner or later the LTA is to produce players who can match Andy Murray's success with the help of this red dirt.

Read the full interview here.

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