Court Construction & Maintenance Guide: Red or Green?
Since the 1930s, green clay has been the predominant clay-court color in the U.S. But what’s driving color choices now?
By Pat Hanssen
If you are an avid tennis player, or even just mildly interested in the sport, you have in all likelihood heard about the new USTA National Campus being built in Orlando, Fla. Among the 100 tennis courts to be constructed on the 63-acre site are 32 green clay courts and eight red clay courts, which might strike people as rather peculiar. Why install both red and green clay? Are they really that different?
Knowing that the USTA National Campus could be a model for other facilities around the country, what can be learned from the USTA’s selection that might apply elsewhere?
In the early 1900s, grass courts and red clay courts were the most prevalent types of tennis courts across Europe. This tradition was carried over to the U.S., and particularly in the Northeast, where good quality clays were naturally present, clay courts became relatively abundant.
In the 1930s, a man named Horace A. Robinson, working for En Tous Cas, a European court builder with offices in the U.S., ran across a roofing granule company in Maryland and became interested in the possibility of building a tennis court with that material. A test court was constructed in 1932 and it turned out that this material produced an extremely good alternative to red clay.
The natural green stone he used created a very stable and fast-drying court, one that was easy to standardize and replicate compared to local clays. The inventor called the surface “Har-Tru,” using his initials for the first half of the name and following it with “Tru” to characterize the surface’s true bounce. From this point forward, Europe and the U.S. diverged when it came to the color of clay courts.
Green Clay Benefits
The benefits of the new green court were significant enough to builders, owners and players that they drove its eventual, widespread adoption. Builders benefitted from standardized materials that were readily available and easier to work with than real clay. Owners found the court easier to maintain and faster to dry after rain. Tennis players preferred the consistency of the ball bounce, footing and speed of play as well as the greater visibility of the ball against the dark green background (some clays are quite orange and when combined with balls that get dirty, visibility can be tough, particularly for older players). By the late 1970s most of the red clay courts in the U.S. had been converted to Har-Tru green.
Most other countries, of course, stuck with red clay. Certainly a large part of this has been tradition, but economics has been a factor as well. Shipping crushed stone overseas substantially raises the cost of owning a green court in Europe and South America, particularly when clay and crushed brick are widely available. Only Canada and the U.K. transitioned to the green clay — Canada due to its close proximity to the U.S. and the U.K. due to its confoundedly rainy weather (fast drying matters) and the fact that their tradition is grass, not clay.
So why today, when history has proven out the benefits and practicality of green clay, would anyone in the U.S. choose red over green? It’s certainly not for the cost. A genuine European red-clay court could cost as much as double the price of a green-clay court by the time the material is shipped over and installed.
The Reason for Red
The primary reason red is chosen is as the preferred training surface. There are vastly more ATP and WTA tournaments contested on red clay than on green, and of course Roland Garros, the clay court Grand Slam, is also played on red clay. For some facilities and organizations where training high-level players is a priority, there is a strong belief that you must replicate the red-clay playing characteristics, specifically slower speed, higher bounce and more slippery footing. The USTA fits this description.
The eight red-clay courts being installed at the USTA National Campus are specifically for the Player Development team to use to train current and future champions. Tennis Australia has committed in a similar way to having red and not green clay at its primary training facilities despite the benefits green offered of requiring less water for maintenance, water being quite scarce in Australia.
Alternatively, Tennis Canada chose to install green courts at its Montreal training center in 2011. In an online article on SportsNet dated June 14, 2011, Tennis Canada Vice President for Professional Tennis Eugene Lapierre said, “Green clay is slightly faster and has a little less bounce than red, but the game is almost the same.”
While to date having a red-clay court for training top players ranks first among reasons to install one, that may be changing. Over the last five years, Har-Tru Sports, the manufacturer of the green clay, has noticed an uptick in the interest in red clay. In fact, there has been enough interest that the company now offers both American and European red-clay options and has developed a new system for installing European red on top of existing green courts as a low cost, low maintenance alternative to real red clay.
Drawing the Eye
Tracy Lynch, Har-Tru’s director of sales, says there is something that tennis players find compelling about the red color. “It draws your eye and makes you want to try it out. Some of this may be due to the contrast to the norm that is green, but I also believe that it’s because there is much more exposure to the red clay now through tournament coverage on the Tennis Channel.”
Several clubs that have recently installed red-clay courts offered similar sentiment. USPTA pro Richard Centerbar, director of tennis at Boca Grove Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., says, “Our tennis facility has 11 green clay courts and one red. We converted our green exhibition court to red basically just to add some flash to our club; I told the tennis committee we could always change it back if they didn’t like it. They agreed to try it and we were pleasantly surprised to see how well it was received by the membership. The game is definitely different because it’s real Italian red clay! The bounce is higher and slower, and there’s more cushion.
“Another thing we were surprised about,” Centerbar continues, “was how many touring professionals found out that we have this surface at our club and they want to come over and train, especially before the French Open. Even Ivan Lendl will drive down an hour and a half and ask for the red clay for a little tennis and golf. He’s played here many times and always plays on the red. Needless to say, the tennis committee has never asked me to convert the red exhibition court back to green.”
Class and Tradition
Cesar Jansen is the maintenance supervisor at Woodfield Country Club, also in Boca Raton, and is a clay-court guru. He watched as Har-Tru Sports’ new European red on green system went in on top of one of the club’s green courts last year. Interest initially was in having a red surface for training top players, Jansen says, but its beauty and sense of tradition captivated many of the club’s members, who now use the court. “Great tennis centers should have a European red-clay court,” he says. “It’s class, tradition and play like no other.”
The clay-court selections by the USTA for the new National Campus offer some useful takeaways for facility owners, managers and tennis enthusiasts. One is that there is rising interest in red-clay tennis courts and it’s worth considering whether it makes sense for your facility to add any. Another is that while green remains the most practical clay-court option in terms of cost and maintenance, there are new options for red that make ownership more feasible and attractive. Recognize that if you work with high-level players, the playing characteristics of red are different than green, and red is prized as the better training surface.
And finally, the addition of red clay can help differentiate and enhance your facility and drive interest and excitement among players of all levels.
Pat Hanssen of Charlottesville, Va., is the general manager for Har-Tru Sports. A New England native, he spent 12 years as a full-time tennis teacher and head professional in Virginia. Hanssen is a USPTA-certified P1 professional, an active tennis player and enjoys volunteering in the industry.
See all articles by Pat Hanssen
About the Author
Pat Hanssen is the director of sales and marketing for Lee Tennis Court Products in Charlottesville, Va. An active player and coach, he is the past president of USTA Virginia and vice president of USPTA Mid-Atlantic Division.
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