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Just like Rome: USTA National Campus red clay readies Americans for Paris peak
Nestled in the heart of Central Florida, top U.S. talents prepared for the European clay swing in their own backyard.
Published May 11, 2022
WATCH: In between a busy spring that included a winning Billie Jean King Cup weekend, Alison Riske was among those who opted to prepare for red clay at the USTA National Campus.
In the final hours of the spring hard-court swing, Naomi Osaka vowed to step up her clay-court game by planning an early trip to Europe, thereby maximizing her time on a surface that became her nemesis last year.
“I'm clearly not a clay expert,” the ever-honest Osaka said after reaching the Miami Open final, “but, you know, I feel like if I get my movement together, I should be pretty good.”
Florida-based colleagues Madison Keys and Alison Riske also got a jump on their clay-court preparation, but didn’t have to leave home to do it thanks to the USTA National Campus. Nestled in the heart of southeast Orlando in Lake Nona, the National Campus boasts six red clay courts, which are made from the very dirt used at this week’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia.
Former Rome champion-turned-USTA National Women’s Coach Kathy Rinaldi can personally vouch for the near-identical conditions through her work with current pros and rising juniors.
“I obviously loved playing on red clay as a player, so any time I can get on red clay with the players, I love to do so,” she said after leading the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup team to victory over Ukraine in Asheville, N.C. “Most of the camps we have throughout the year, we try to throw them on clay and red clay in particular. It’s a surface that teaches the youngsters so much, and I believe it helps shape their identities as players: strategizing, problem-solving. That’s what red clay does, so we really like to throw them on clay as much as possible.”
With most of the season and half the sport’s major tournaments taking place on hard courts, there has been a deemphasis on clay-court development in the years since Chris Evert dominated on dirt—both for U.S. contingent at large and stateside players like Osaka, for whom red clay can be hard to find.
“They can’t just rip balls and hit through people on clay,” explains National Men’s Coach Kent Kinnear, who has worked with the likes of Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, and Tommy Paul from their earliest days as up-and-coming juniors. “They really have to work points more.”
That malaise began to abate with the next generation and 2015’s all-American Roland Garros final between Paul and Fritz, a change Kinnear attributes to an increase in access.
“I think we’ve put more USTA tournaments on clay over the past ten years—not necessarily red clay, but Har-Tru—but a part of our Player Development philosophy was that it was really important for them to learn to play on clay," he said. "It’s easier on the body, and they’re learning to construct points better.
“At our training centers, we’re on clay any time we can be. If they’ve got three weeks before their next tournament and their next tournament is on hard courts, they’re probably going to spend about a week and a half on clay before moving back on hard for the last week or week and a half. The whole idea of resetting by getting back to clay is really a big part of our philosophy.”
Paul and Fritz aren’t the only products of that philosophy. Opelka made his first Masters 1000 semifinal last year in Rome and Sofia Kenin backed up her maiden major title in Australia with a runner-up finish in Paris.
Rinaldi believes the National Campus’ diversity of surfaces will achieve the USTA Player Development program’s mission of building complete players who can compete for all of tennis’ biggest titles.
“In today’s game, you want to give a player as many tools as possible,” she said. “There’s no better surface than clay to teach the fundamentals, but it’s also important that they get on all surfaces to develop those tools.”
A part of our Player Development philosophy was that it was really important for them to learn to play on clay. It’s easier on the body, and they’re learning to construct points better. They can’t just rip balls and hit through people on clay. They really have to work points more. Kent Kinnear, USTA National Men's Coach
Those tools have become especially evident among the youngest of American talents: bursting onto the scene with a run to 2020 Roland Garros’ fourth round, 20-year-old Sebastian Korda claimed his first ATP on clay in Parma and is the only man to beat Carlos Alcaraz since the BNP Paribas Open—again on clay, at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. If Korda is any indication of what’s to come, the rising American juniors appear primed for a clay-court takeover.
“As our pros get ready, and a lot of them are already in Europe, as they prepare for that clay-court swing that culminates at the French Open, for them to get a week or two weeks out here between Miami and when they go over is incredibly important,” said Kinnear.
For those opting into the USTA National Campus’ facilities, players can expect all that awaits them in Paris—down to Roland Garros’ signature tennis balls—combined with the comforts of home.
“It really is an art to have great red clay courts,” Kinnear said. “I was telling our head groundskeeper, this feels and looks like Paris, right here. Even with some of the clouds and a little rain, this is exactly how it’s going to feel. So, for the players to be able to experience all that here is an incredible asset for both our program and our culture.”