On the Surface
There’s a lot to consider before you can choose the best court surface — or surfaces — for your facility.
Choosing the right court surface is one of the most challenging decisions faced by tennis facility owners and managers. As a design professional, I am frequently asked what is the best tennis court surface to build. I get the sense that people have an expectation that there is one type of surface that is preferable to all others.
My response to this question, often to people’s surprise, is that there is no one right surface to build. The choice of tennis court surface depends on what their vision of the facility is. One surface type can’t meet everyone’s needs, and often, a facility’s needs are best met by having more than one type of surface. While it is true that tennis facilities in the past have usually featured just one type of surface, there is an emerging trend in new facilities toward providing multiple surface types to meet a variety of challenges in the tennis marketplace.
Here are some things to consider about which surface or surfaces might be right for your facility.
Player Comfort and Preferences
Of course, tennis surface choices are all about what players like. Surface options are usually divided into hard courts, such as asphalt or concrete either cushioned or not, and soft courts, such as clay, fast dry, natural turf and synthetic turf. The basic consideration between hard and soft courts is that they play very differently and therefore appeal to different types of players.
Hard courts generally play faster than soft courts and have higher ball bounce. If you have a power serve, this is the court for you. The speed of a hard court can be adjusted somewhat by varying the surface texture, but as the courts wear, they will tend to play faster. Many players find hard courts difficult to play on for long periods of time due to the constant pounding of their feet and joints over an unforgiving surface. There are both liquid-applied and roll-out cushion surfaces that can substantially mitigate foot impact on the surface without significantly effecting the speed of play or ball bounce, making prolonged play more comfortable.
Soft courts generally play slower than hard courts and have a lower ball bounce. Soft courts allow for foot slide over the surface, alleviating the stress of the short stop and twisting that accompanies play on hard courts. Soft courts are generally considered more body friendly and are usually preferred by older players. If you prefer a volley-based game, soft courts are for you.
When considering the cost of different surface types, it is important to remember both the initial cost of construction and the cost to maintain the court surface over the long term. Hard courts, whether asphalt or concrete, often cost significantly more to build than fast dry or grass courts. The reason for this is that a hard court requires both a costly pavement structure and a liquid-applied or roll-out playing surface on top. Fast-dry courts are built from less costly and more easily installed materials.
Hard courts, however, require very little regular maintenance beyond cleaning and resurfacing every three to five years. Fast-dry courts require costly irrigation, rolling, raking, and seasonal start-up and shut down in cold winter climates. Subsurface irrigation systems can substantially reduce water usage and daily maintenance regimens, but they still require considerably more expense than a hard court.
Synthetic-turf courts are often more expensive than hard courts due to the high cost of the in-filled carpet system, but they require little more than weekly or monthly sweeping as part of their upkeep. Natural grass courts, like fast-dry courts, require irrigation and rolling and are not recommended unless you have an experienced turf specialist on staff such as you might find at your local golf club.
Flexibility in Programming
Tennis facility owners don’t talk about this much, but there is often economic pressure to use their courts for things other than the traditional tennis match. It is no secret that many indoor facilities are used during the summer months for children’s summer camps. Hard court surfaces are best suited to take the greater abuse generated by youth programs.
With temporary markings and stanchions, hard courts can readily accommodate volleyball and basketball games, though these uses need to be carefully undertaken on certain types of cushioned surfaces. Synthetic-turf courts make excellent venues for soccer, especially if multiple banks of courts are converted to a large field by removing divider fences and net posts.
Often clubs will on occasion use a court or two for special events such as weddings, fund-raisers, special exhibits and the like. Again, hard courts, with protection put down over the surface, easily allow for these types of activities. Fast-dry courts, with some temporary measures, can work for these types of events, but some consideration should be given to the problems posed by the moisture within the surface itself. Fast-dry courts can also be used for bocce tournaments. Don’t forget that natural grass courts can easily be converted for use as croquet pitches.
With a little bit of creative thinking, tennis court surface choices can offer increased programming options to a facility on either a temporary or recurring basis without detracting from their regular use as tennis courts.
One last point about tennis-court surface choices: Image is everything. There is no question that people associate surface types with certain types of tennis venues. Painted hard courts often remind players of poorly used municipal facilities, while hard courts cushioned with premier surface systems can evoke the thrill of the U.S. Open or Australian Open. Natural grass courts conjure up images of the Newport Casino or Wimbledon. Red fast-dry courts recall the French or Italian Open.
Why not build a natural grass “center” court with a nearby clubhouse that can serve as a novelty that sets your club apart from others in your area, creating a nostalgic sense of what tennis used to be? When was the last time you played on a grass court? There is no reason that the rest of your courts have to be natural grass.
Choosing a court surface is as much about providing local players with what they want as with providing them with what they don’t have at other facilities. And this can translate into potential market share.
With today’s competitive economic climate, decision-makers are acutely aware that the success of their facility is dependent on making the right choices. By considering your players needs and desires, your budget, what you want to do with the facility and how you want to position your facility within your local market, you can more easily make the right surface choices.
See all articles by Andrew R. Lavallee
About the Author
Andrew R. Lavallee , ASLA, is a Senior Associate at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, PC located in New York City.