Last week, Rafael Nadal claimed that the indoor clay surface in Sao Paulo didn’t play like clay–it was faster than the surface of the US Open. It also wasn’t up to standard, with frequent bad bounces and occasional slides gone wrong.
It’s easy to write off Rafa’s complaints as the whining of a once-dominant player who inexplicably loses sets to competitors who might otherwise never appear on television. But what if he’s right? What if some clay surfaces are faster than some hard surfaces?
In fact, I stumbled on this paradox when sharing some surface speed numbers last fall. In the Brasil Open’s first year at a new venue in Sao Paulo, it’s main draw players hit 58% more aces than expected, the highest rate of any ATP tour event, comfortably ahead of European indoor events in Marseille and Montpellier.
Amazingly, this year, players in Sao Paulo hit 78% more aces than they would have on an average surface. Some of the individual performances are impressive: Nicolas Almagro hit aces on 21% and 26% of service points in his two matches; Joao Souza cracked 27% in a qualifying match. The raw numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they might be simply because most of the competitors prefer clay-courts for a reason. Put Carlos Berlocq on an ice-skating rink and he still won’t hit many aces. In fact, Berlocq’s ace rates last week account for three of the top eight of the 55 matches he played in the 52 weeks.
Ace rate doesn’t tell the whole surface speed story, but it’s an awfully good proxy. It consistently places the expected indoor tournaments near the top of the rankings and traditionally slower clay events like Monte Carlo and Rome near the bottom. So when a clay event spits out numbers like these, something wacky is going on.
Much has been written of the homogenization of surface speed, and certainly many hard courts have gotten slower. But the clay courts in Sao Paulo aren’t drifting toward a bland average–they are going where few clay courts have gone before. Perhaps, as more events are played on temporary surfaces, we’ll continue to see unexpected results like these. Certainly, we cannot assume that all clay courts are created equal.