Like the search for the perfect racket, the quest for perfect playing conditions never ceases. There always seem to be some variables - sun, wind, court surface, noise, shadiness - that can upset a player's game. But with a few tips, you can make the adjustments necessary to take advantage of various conditions.
The most common problem is a change of court surface. Yet playing on unfamiliar surfaces can actually improve your overall game by forcing you to adapt and try new ways of winning.
Most surfaces around here are hard courts, or fast surfaces. The ball bounces fast and deep. A hard-hit ball is difficult to return. Concentrate on developing a good first serve; if possible, follow it to the net. When you spot an opening, go for the put-away shot - it will probably be unretreivable.
On slower surfaces such as clay or composition, the serve is a less important weapon. Use a three-quarter delivery and try to get the first one in. Should you lose your serve, it is likewise easier to break the other player's serve in the next game.
On the slow surface, it pays to start putting a little more topspin on your shots, like Harold Solomon, and to mix in more slices, dinks and dropshots, like John McEnroe.
But to play effectively on a slow court, you must be in better condition than for a fast court. Running is a critical part of claycourt tennis. Run down every ball and resolve never to miss a shot you can reach - no unforced errors, like Chris Evert.
You can gain a psychological advantage by going into a match on a windy day with the confident knowledge of how to play in wind. Like superior conditioning, knowing a few rules is a variable you can control.
When the wind is at your back, hit the ball with topspin and keep it deep. On return of serve, play up a bit closer. When rushing the net, attack a little tighter on the net to cut off passing shots.
When the wind is in your face, use slice on most shots, forcing your opponent to bend low for his shots. Lob more and hit out on the lobs. Stand back a bit on return of serve.
In gusty, swirling wind, use your discretion and keep the ball up the middle. Also shorten your service toss a bit.
Q - What's the best thing to do when serving into the sun?
A - Try an Australian-style tennis hat. You need wear it only when serving on the sunny side. If it's extremely hot, you might also try Rod Laver's old trick of putting wet lettuce inside the hat to cool his head. If you can't stand hats, try a sun visor.
Q - I recently switched from playing on clay to playing on a hard court. I'm having trouble with return of serve. I seem to be hitting the ball late.
A - You probably are used to taking a full backswing on clay. Try to shorten your backswing by half and simply block back the hard serve. The fast pace on the ball and your body weight will be enough to propel a good service return.
Q - When I rush the net on my serve on clay, I can handle the first volley, but often get passed on the next shot. Why is this?
A - On Clay, you don't have the same traction to push off quickly as on hard courts. Your opponent also has more time to set up his passing shots. Vary your net-rushing tactics on clay. Stay back most of the time, then come up to surprise your opponent.
Q - On really hot days, I have trouble holding on to my racket. What should I do?
A - First check the condition of your racket grip. If it's worn, replace it with a raised or perforated grip. You can also buy a terry-cloth grip. Many advanced players periodically rewrap their grips with grip tape, which looks like surgical gauze and is fairly rough on the hands. Others find it sufficient to towel off between games or to wear a small towel in their waistbands and use it between points. Remember to bring an extra wristband on a really himid day.
Q - If I lose the spin of the racket, I have the choice of which side to start on. On a day with a blinding sun, which side should I take?
A - Elect to receive serve on the bad side, with the sun-glare. Then on the next game, you'll be serving for the first time with the sun out of your eyes.
Q - Sometimes I get bad bounces on clay courts. What causes this?
A - Clay requires daily watering, and sweeping and frequent rolling to maintain an even surface. But active players also chop up divots when sliding and changing direction. Be sure to fill in and flatten any deep gouges that your shoes cut into clay.