Why do clay courts provide so many bagels and one sides sets?

#1
I've always wondered why the clay season provides so many one sided sets, and is the surface with the highest probability for a bagel. What is the single biggest reason?

I'm currently thinking it's mainly down to the slowing down of the court speed, thus rendering fast serves less effective - in essence, levelling out the playing field and revealing any weaknesses in a players overall shot making and 'forcing' unforced errors. Taking away those 'easy points' if you will.

This is logical, seeing as historically, big servers have rarely done well at the FO. Also in today's Thiem vs Djokovic match, both players, while excellent on clay, struggled to hold their serves - something you wouldn't see on a hard court. Both players serve on the opposite end of the speed spectrum, which makes it a good example.

So is it as simple as clay courts drastically reduce the advantages of serving?

Is this why we see the same type of scores in the women's game (lack of serve speed)?

Additional thought..

Why was Sampras relatively poor on clay given he was an excellent baseliner, and had a GOAT serve that was far more than just fast?

Which leads me to.. is clay a mental thing too? Similarly to how some players just hate playing on grass, thus don't have the patience/desire for longer rallies..

A bit long winded, so I do apologise.. but all opinions welcome!
 
#3
The simple explanation you gave is the correct one.
It makes sense, but I'm not sure it accounts for the bagelling (is that a word?) of players who have never relied on their serve.

As Tanky McTomicTank as Djokovic was in that 3rd set today.. I doubt he'd have lost that set 6-0 on any other surface.

I'm not saying his serve isn't good, but it often comes back to him, even when on top form.
 
#4
It makes sense, but I'm not sure it accounts for the bagelling (is that a word?) of players who have never relied on their serve.

As Tanky McTomicTank as Djokovic was in that 3rd set today.. I doubt he'd have lost that set 6-0 on any other surface.

I'm not saying his serve isn't good, but it often comes back to him, even when on top form.
Everyone relies on his serve, even the one with poor/average ones. It's the nature of the game. I bet any player on average wins more than 50% of his service games, and more service games than return games. Even strong returner/very poor server Schwartzman still held 65% of the time this clay season, which is higher than his break % of 42.
 

citybert

Hall of Fame
#5
Also while clay is better for the body the points are long and grinding. No need to play out the set to try and get back in. Not a good use of energy. Look at Nishikori verdasco match when kei tanked after he went down a double break in the first.
 

JMR

Professional
#6
OP, your answer is basically correct, except that clay reduces the effectiveness of all offensive shots, not just the serve. A game based on a big, point-winning first serve is probably affected the most by a very slow surface, but the payoff from aggressive play is reduced in general, leading to more points decided by long, grinding rallies. A slight advantage in baseline consistency and/or stamina thereby will yield a large advantage in terms of points and games won.

As for Sampras, he was an "excellent baseliner" only if you're talking about aggressive baseline play on a medium-speed or fast surface -- the very type of game most muted by slow clay. Sampras could hang from the baseline with someone like Agassi at the U.S. Open, but at the French Pete was unable to sustain aggressive baseline rallies long enough to dominate matches. His game was not built for grinding; it was built to pressure the opponent and produce winners. Sampras was not particularly adept at employing spin; he tended to prefer fast, flat hitting with only a modest margin for error.
 
#7
Everyone relies on his serve, even the one with poor/average ones. It's the nature of the game. I bet any player on average wins more than 50% of his service games, and more service games than return games. Even strong returner/very poor server Schwartzman still held 65% of the time this clay season, which is higher than his break % of 42.
Murray is the perhaps the exception to that, his serve goes walkabout so often he can pretty much lose it repeatedly on any surface. It is his returning skills that let him get away with it most of the time. It is why Federer owns him in slam finals, Federer has an unreadable serve, so he is a terrible matchup for Murray.

As for the main point of the thread, I agree with the OP, the slow surface takes away the serve. Which is why i love clay, I hate serve bots who can't play. Clay gets rid of them.
 

TennisLBC

Professional
#8
Clay is the ultimate tennis challenge. Being just a big bomber, be it service game or off the ground does not mean much it you can't state engaged. I have notice you don't get big momentum changes in the middle of a set. Plus best of 5 on clay is such a grind, being down a set and break could seem impossible.
 
#9
Also while clay is better for the body the points are long and grinding. No need to play out the set to try and get back in. Not a good use of energy. Look at Nishikori verdasco match when kei tanked after he went down a double break in the first.
If a set is lost 6-0, is it tanking, or did he lose that last service game legit too? Just playing devils advocate.

But I agree, I've always believed players 'tank' games and sets they have little chance of recovering from, mainly as you say, to conserve energy. On the opposite side of the spectrum.. in matches like Federer vs Willis at Wimbledon last year, Federer could have issued some bagels given the huge difference in quality, yet he held back and gave the guy a chance.

OP, your answer is basically correct, except that clay reduces the effectiveness of all offensive shots, not just the serve. A game based on a big, point-winning first serve is probably affected the most by a very slow surface, but the payoff from aggressive play is reduced in general, leading to more points decided by long, grinding rallies. A slight advantage in baseline consistency and/or stamina thereby will yield a large advantage in terms of points and games won.

As for Sampras, he was an "excellent baseliner" only if you're talking about aggressive baseline play on a medium-speed or fast surface -- the very type of game most muted by slow clay. Sampras could hang from the baseline with someone like Agassi at the U.S. Open, but at the French Pete was unable to sustain aggressive baseline rallies long enough to dominate matches. His game was not built for grinding; it was built to pressure the opponent and produce winners. Sampras was not particularly adept at employing spin; he tended to prefer fast, flat hitting with only a modest margin for error.
I do get your point, although I'd wager Sampras could hang with Agassi on clay just as easily as on a hard court, at least theoretically. My reasoning is simply, why couldn't he? He had the skill level, the fitness/stamina, the mental strength.

Maybe it came down to confidence. Players like Agassi probably relish the battle of a clay match, whereas players like Sampras may not have the patience for it, so try to force something when the rally shot duration gets on their nerves, leading to unforced errors. (My theory as to what makes Djokovic so difficult to beat)

I do agree with you, just trying to rationalise the why, not necessarily the how.
 
#10
Margins get bigger and bigger as the surface gets slower.

That means that % of games won, on average, is lowest on grass and highest on clay.

It's always been that way.

Yes, all players win more games serving than returning. That's obvious. Nadal won around 50% of his return games in 2008, and now one has come close to that in the last 25 years or so. But Borg won in a similar manner on clay.

Since they win the highest % of games on clay, the highest number of bagels and breadsticks happen on that surface, the lowest number on grass.

It's a statistical thing.

I've never done the math but I'd wager the hight % of TBs per match happen on grass.
 

JMR

Professional
#11
I do get your point, although I'd wager Sampras could hang with Agassi on clay just as easily as on a hard court, at least theoretically. My reasoning is simply, why couldn't he? He had the skill level, the fitness/stamina, the mental strength.
But Pete probably didn't have the skill level. Hitting three or four great baseline shots in a row is a different skill from hitting 15 or 20 very good baseline shots in row. Pete lacked that level of supreme consistency, for the reasons I've given.

It's also possible that Sampras lacked the stamina (due to thalassemia minor) to play the most productive clay style -- not necessarily for a point, game, or set, but perhaps for a long match or series of matches.
 

ibbi

Hall of Fame
#13
It makes sense, but I'm not sure it accounts for the bagelling (is that a word?) of players who have never relied on their serve.

As Tanky McTomicTank as Djokovic was in that 3rd set today.. I doubt he'd have lost that set 6-0 on any other surface.

I'm not saying his serve isn't good, but it often comes back to him, even when on top form.
He wouldn't be as likely to get bagelled on any other surface because he could serve himself out of trouble. It's harder to do that on clay, you have to work much harder to win points, and when you're two sets down, and losing game after game in the third it becomes harder and harder to force yourself to put that effort in.
 
#14
But Pete probably didn't have the skill level. Hitting three or four great baseline shots in a row is a different skill from hitting 15 or 20 very good baseline shots in row. Pete lacked that level of supreme consistency, for the reasons I've given.

It's also possible that Sampras lacked the stamina (due to thalassemia minor) to play the most productive clay style -- not necessarily for a point, game, or set, but perhaps for a long match or series of matches.
In my opinion, he had the skill level. Say a rally lasted 20 shots.. if you took a 4 shot 'snapshot' in isolation from any part of that rally, it would probably resemble a 4 shot rally on any surface. I think the 'grinders' or clay specialists just have a higher tolerance for longer rallies and keep their concentration for longer, playing defensively looking for that opening, or dip in concentration from their opponent. Perhaps even better at thinking several shots ahead, in their game of chess-tennis.

In that respect I still think it's largely mental.

Sampras' illness could have been a factor for sure, even if mentally he tried to shorten points for fear of how he'd perform in a long, grinding match.
 
#15
Simple probability. Assume two players are equally matched. On clay they hold 60% of the time, hard 70%, and grass 80%. The odds of a bagel are

Clay: 2 * (.6^3 * .4^3) = 0.028
Hard: 2 * (.7^3 * .3^3) = 0.019
Grass: 2 * (.8^3 * .2^3) = 0.008

If they aren't equally matched, the odds of a bagel will increase, but clay will still have the highest odds and grass the lowest.
 
#16
If a set is lost 6-0, is it tanking, or did he lose that last service game legit too? Just playing devils advocate.

But I agree, I've always believed players 'tank' games and sets they have little chance of recovering from, mainly as you say, to conserve energy. On the opposite side of the spectrum.. in matches like Federer vs Willis at Wimbledon last year, Federer could have issued some bagels given the huge difference in quality, yet he held back and gave the guy a chance.



I do get your point, although I'd wager Sampras could hang with Agassi on clay just as easily as on a hard court, at least theoretically. My reasoning is simply, why couldn't he? He had the skill level, the fitness/stamina, the mental strength.

Maybe it came down to confidence. Players like Agassi probably relish the battle of a clay match, whereas players like Sampras may not have the patience for it, so try to force something when the rally shot duration gets on their nerves, leading to unforced errors. (My theory as to what makes Djokovic so difficult to beat)

I do agree with you, just trying to rationalise the why, not necessarily the how.
Why in the world are you complicating something that isn't complicated? We have tens of thousands of data points from multiple generations and hundreds of player who ALL win fewer points in their first serves on clay. ALL of them. The serve does not skid past the return per like it does on grass but rather slows down a fraction compared to hard court and gives the returner s chance to put the ball innolay. Nasal and Djoko of old etc., are better ralliers and EVEN those who don't seem like they rely on their serves, they actually really do to get a point here and there (i.e., weak return, own the point) and can hold against superior players.

Hence, it's easier to get broken and win return games. That's it. That's the reason why there's more tiebreaks on grass and fewer on clay.
 
#17
The server is less dominant on clay so you get more bagels. The serve is less dominant in women's tennis so you get more bagels...I think.
 
#18
Why in the world are you complicating something that isn't complicated? We have tens of thousands of data points from multiple generations and hundreds of player who ALL win fewer points in their first serves on clay. ALL of them. The serve does not skid past the return per like it does on grass but rather slows down a fraction compared to hard court and gives the returner s chance to put the ball innolay. Nasal and Djoko of old etc., are better ralliers and EVEN those who don't seem like they rely on their serves, they actually really do to get a point here and there (i.e., weak return, own the point) and can hold against superior players.

Hence, it's easier to get broken and win return games. That's it. That's the reason why there's more tiebreaks on grass and fewer on clay.
Keep you trousers on. I get your point, but your reply has no relevance to the quote in your post.
 
Top