Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gilbert urges more clay courts in NorCal

Brad Gilbert conducts an interview after speaking
at the Olympic Club in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   SAN FRANCISCO -- Brad Gilbert is an unlikely proponent of clay courts.
   The renowned commentator, coach and author and former top-five player in the world grew up on hardcourts in Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area. 
   "When I was a kid, clay was dirt on the road somewhere," Gilbert, 51, told about 125 juniors and parents on Tuesday at the beautiful, stately Olympic Club. "We didn't have one clay court. There might have been this one little place in San Leandro that had two dirt courts and a net and some lines. That's about it.
   "We have a great history of champions in Northern California. So does Southern California. But the rest of the world has massively caught up, and (the United States has fallen) way behind. It's all because of clay courts. Everybody in Europe is playing on clay. Public facilities, clubs ... and they take pride playing on it."
   Twenty years ago, two of the top three men in the world and three of the top 10 were American. Pete Sampras was No. 1, Jim Courier was No. 2, and Michael Chang was No. 8. And that doesn't count Andre Agassi, who slumped to No. 24 that year. All four players are in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
   Now, the top-ranked U.S. man is John Isner at No. 19. The top 10 consists of nine Europeans and a South American, Juan Martin del Potro, who also grew up on clay.
   Clay courts are fairly common in the eastern United States but rare in California. There are an estimated  60 clay courts in Northern California, 43 of them at private homes and 17 at clubs.
   Two of the Olympic Club's eight courts are clay. Established in 1860, the facility bills itself as the oldest athletic club in the United States.
   Tuesday's session was hosted by Har-Tru, reputedly the largest manufacturer of clay courts in the world, and held in conjunction with the Olympic Club Har-Tru Clay Court Shootout, the first event of its kind in California.
   The junior tournament serves as a warmup for the USTA Boys and Girls National Clay Court Championships, Sunday through July 20 at various sites in Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. Boys 18 singles and doubles will be held in Delray Beach, Fla., and girls 18 singles and doubles will take place in Memphis, Tenn.
   Har-Tru general manager Pat Hanssen announced that the Charlottesville, Va.-based company will invest $500,000 in any club that will install 10 clay courts or more.
   "If you want to run a national tournament or have a training center, you need 10 courts," Hanssen explained.
   Gilbert said he dreams of seeing "at least 75 percent of the tournaments in Northern Cal, first to last round, played on clay. We need to embrace clay, especially 10-year-olds. It teaches you discipline, how to build a point. The most important thing now in the modern game of tennis is footwork. You learn footwork by playing on clay, embracing the (correct) leg slide."
   Until 15 years ago, grass courts on the pro circuits were lightning fast, and hardcourts were medium-fast. But then both began to play more like slow clay.
   It all started with Sampras' 6-7 (2), 7-6 (9), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Goran Ivanisevic in the 1998 Wimbledon final. Ferocious serves on the slick grass dominated the match. Rallies were almost nonexistent, putting many spectators at Centre Court and on worldwide television to sleep.
   Petrified by the prospect of lower TV ratings -- i.e. advertising revenue -- Wimbledon officials made the surface slower. That allowed baseliners such as Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian to meet in the 2002 final, won by Hewitt. The rest of the world followed Wimbledon's lead.
    "The courts at Wimbledon are way slower than the asphalt courts I learned to play on here," said Gilbert, who recently returned from the famed tournament. "Hardcourts now, if you see all the ATP and WTA tournaments, the balls are bouncing up to your chest, to your neck. The conditions are much slower. Even indoor courts that we used to play on, carpet, are slower.
   "Not to mention you see more injuries for kids now because it's just not that natural to be playing on cement. A lot of people say, 'Rafa (Rafael Nadal), he only likes to play on clay, and he complains about playing on cement.' I don't see that we play soccer and too many other sports in the world on cement."
   Gilbert said he wishes he had been able to play on clay as a junior.
   "Maybe I would have done better on it (as a pro). But the more I see it, the more I watch it and the more I understand it, all the best players when they're kids are learning to play on clay.
   "A lot of people say, 'How can you think that way? You grew up on hardcourts.' Well, that was when I had a mullet, short shorts and high socks. Now it's long shorts, it's short socks, and I'm bald. (It's) evolution. Things change," Gilbert said.
   Gilbert urged juniors to find tournaments and programs on clay courts.
   "It will teach you that discipline," he said. "Too many American kids now are trying to slap the ball and play too big. They're not using discipline or not using their feet.
   "I tell kids, 'The feet are directly connected to the brain. If the feet and brain aren't together, it's always trouble.' "
   For an in-depth story on a Sacramento-area man who built a clay court in his backyard, go to:
   Coming soon -- A Q&A with Brad Gilbert. 

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