Andrew Castle, a former British number one, recalls some of his experiences on clay, and gives The Tennis Space an insight into what the surface can teach you.
I only played a handful of matches on clay on the tour. One of them was absolutely hilarious. I turned up at one tournament and I had not realised it was on clay. It was in Bari. Obviously I hadn’t been playing on clay at all and I lost 0 and 0 to Ulf Stenlund. Now nobody’s ever heard of him but I can tell you he was a bloody good player [he reached a top ranking of 23 and made the last 16 at the French Open in 1986]. I actually thought I played a reasonable match – I was in just about every game and lost every one of them. Brilliant fun.
I hardly hit a ball on clay until I was at college and I played with Mike Pernfors – well, I qualified for the Orange Bowl by beating him and that was the limit of my clay-court experience before I was a professional player. I remember playing (Sergi) Bruguera at the Olympics and thinking, I’ve got significant problems here, best of five sets on clay in Barcelona against the soon-to-be French Open champion. Not easy. But I tell you one result I did get and this fills me with joy. I made the life of Guillermo Perez-Roldan a misery in Boston. It was at the US Clay-Court championships and I beat him in the second round. I was delighted by that. I serve-volleyed out of my brain. I felt bad for him in a way because I had absolutely no right to beat him on a clay court. (Castle won 7-6, 6-2).
But even if you’re not good on clay, it improves your game on other surfaces. It’s the mentality that goes with it, as well as the strength. The fact that you’re hitting sometimes 11, 12, 13 shots, working and constructing a rally, your brain is engaged the whole time and nothing comes easily. You have to work for everything and that gives you strength. Whenever I practised on clay I always felt strong and then also an enormous sense of relief and pleasure when you get back onto a surface where you can actually make a dent.
Having said all that, it’s very, very difficult for someone who’s not grown up on clay to really do well on it. Clay offered me that understanding, the different heights over the net, different spins. But I didn’t play on a clay-court, basically, until I went to college. Murray was 15 when he first played on clay so he did his technical learning on the stuff. That’s not bad. Some of our young players coming through now, they’ve played a lot more on clay than any generation in the past so I am not being negative about it. It’s a useful practice tool but unless you’ve grown up on that surface as your primary surface, you’re unlikely to make a huge impact on it.