The Pros and Cons of Fast Hard Courts

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Disadvantages of Fast Hard Courts

Leander Paes and Lukas Dloughy at the US Open in 2009. Jared Wickerham / Getty Images

What makes a hard court fast is its relatively smooth and firm surface. When the ball strikes a smooth surface, it encounters less friction to slow it down and fewer and smaller vertical protrusions to push it upward. The smoothness of a hard court increses as the quantity and grain size of the sand that is mixed in with the paint topcoat decreases. Fast hard courts are generally too firm to allow the ball to depress the surface and be slowed as a result.

A faster court gives each player less time to react to the ball, and this makes it easier to hit winners. Easier winners can encourage impatience, a common vice in tennis players, and discourage the virtue of learning to think beyond the current shot. As sheer power becomes more effective, placement gets less emphasis. With shorter points on average and fewer angle shots to chase, players tend to get less exercise per match on a fast hard court.

The body enjoys less exercise as a whole on a fast hard court, and the arm endures more stress from the greater incoming speed of the ball and a greater likelihood of an off-center impact due to insufficient time to line the racquet up properly. The cumulative impacts of running on hard courts are also tough on leg joints, although the legs are spared the strains caused by slipping on clay and grass. Cushioned hard courts ease routine impact strains on the legs, but in extreme heat, some rubberized surfaces can cause injuries when they become sticky enough to grab onto a shoe more than the player expects.

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Advantages of Fast Hard Courts

Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open. Julian Finney / Getty Images

Fast hard courts reduce the time a player has to react to a shot; therefore, they enhance any shots or tactics that rely primarily on the opponent not having time to get to or line up a response, such as big serves, harder and flatter groundstrokes, and volleys. Volleys take time away from your opponent by greatly shortening the distance the ball travels before your opponent has to hit it.

Given that faster hard courts produce lower bounces, they make slices more effective and topspin less effective, and this further favors attacking at net, because slice is the preferred spin for approach shots, and topspin is the preferred spin for passing shots. Playing on a fast court should encourage players to develop more of an all-court game, including more slices, approach shots, half volleys, volleys, and overheads. With your opponent attacking the net more often, you will also be forced to improve your passing shots and lobs.

We've seen how fast hard courts can be tough on the arm, but the arm gets some good news, too. Points generally end sooner on a fast court, thus reducing the number of shots you hit in a match. The lower bounce also keeps the ball more often in the comfort zone for groundstrokes.

A fast hard court is clearly better than a slow one for balls and shoes, as a smoother, less abrasive surface tears away less fuzz and rubber with each bounce or step. Only the smoothest and softest hard court is less abrasive than clay, though, and if court surfaces were chosen exclusively by balls and shoes, grass would be the clear winner--unless, of course, they were such vain balls and shoes that they'd rather be worn away than stained green!