French Open wipeout further proof that British players have a clay phobia

Dan Evans stretches for a backhand against Holger Rune
Dan Evans was among the six British players to lose in the first round at Roland Garros - Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

“Get rid of the clay, man,” said the Australian Nick Kyrgios in 2019. “Who likes the clay? It is so bad.”

Kyrgios’s sentiments would surely be echoed by the majority of British professionals, even if they might not say so out loud.

You only have to look at Great Britain’s win ratios across the three overseas majors in the 21st Century: the French Open is the only one to stand below 50 per cent. And if we take out Andy Murray, the all-court phenomenon who could beat anyone but the ‘Big Three’ on any surface, that figure drops to a miserable 38 per cent.

At this year’s Roland Garros, British clay-phobia has played out in a sequence of six straight defeats across both men’s and women’s draws, so that not a single player progressed into the second round.

It is a sorry state of affairs, but not a particularly unusual one, because similar wipeouts have already happened three times since the turn of the century, in 2007, 2013 and 2020.

Andy Murray looks troubled as he loses to Stan Wawrinka at the French Open
Andy Murray lost in straight sets to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros - Getty Images/Clive Brunskill

Four years ago, an identical 0-6 scoreline prompted Heather Watson to slam the dearth of upcoming talent, and thus triggered a three-day inquest into the Lawn Tennis Association’s development policies. But one could equally well argue that 2007 was worse. That season, an ageing Tim Henman – then only four months from retirement – was the only Briton to participate.

It might seem strange that a short trip across the Channel should feel more challenging for British players than a long-haul flight to Melbourne or New York. But then clay courts are destabilising, in a very literal sense. If you are not used to the way the powdery granules shift beneath your feet, you find yourself skidding around like a novice at a roller-disco.

It seems ironic, in the light of such results, that clay-court tennis should have been invented by a pair of British brothers in the late 19th Century. Trying to export this sexy new racket sport to the Riviera, William and Ernest Renshaw found that grass would not grow properly in the heat. So they smashed up a bunch of terracotta flowerpots and raked the granules into a flat surface.

Clay becomes almost instantly waterlogged

Since that flash of inspiration, clay has become the standard surface across continental Europe, especially in superpower nations such as France, Spain and Italy. It is generally thought of as the best all-round developmental surface, because the slow bounce forces players to generate more power (leading to better biomechanics) and to construct points strategically (leading to a higher tennis IQ). Indeed, the Renshaws’ innovation may lie at the heart of Europe’s global tennis supremacy.

“So what’s the problem?” I hear you cry. “Just do a Renshaw and install red clay courts all around the UK, so that our players can get the hang of them while they’re young.”

But this is much harder than it sounds, because red clay becomes almost instantly waterlogged in northerly climates, unless it is under the care of an expert groundsman. Even in Germany (average rainfall 700mm compared to the UK’s 1220mm), most clay courts shut in September and do not open until mid-April.

Of around 23,000 tennis courts in Britain, the LTA report that 1,100 are made from artificial clay (which behaves quite differently) and just 200 from the real stuff. In fact, the clue is in the title. Around eight years ago, a projected rebrand as “British Tennis” was abandoned in favour of the existing Lawn Tennis Association.

Tennis court surfaces in Britain

Britain is not the only country that suffers. The Australians do not have a clay-court culture either, despite superior weather. In Paris this week, the eight Aussie singles players have managed two first-round wins between them. One came from an all-Aussie tie, and the other was delivered by Alex De Minaur, a man who grew up in Spain.

Is that it, then? Do we just write this week off as “one of those things”? Well, perhaps. But there is also a question of appetite. Have British players been too ready to accept the established pattern of clay-court failure? As a teenager, Murray badgered his parents to let him train at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. But he is the exception that proves the rule.

Last year, when Katie Boulter fell in the second round of French Open qualifying, she posted an Instagram message reading “Now we know what’s coming next”, followed by a grass-blade emoji. Fellow players Katie Swan and Jodie Burrage sent upbeat replies.

Katie Boulter looks dejected
Katie Boulter is dejected after her loss to Paula Badosa on Tuesday - Getty Images

The exchange had a strangely positive vibe when you consider that Boulter had just lost to the world No 163, leaving Britain without a single woman in the French Open’s main draw – arguably a worse outcome than this year’s whitewash, even if it did not generate as many headlines. The whole business suggested that clay-court failure has been normalised.

To her credit, Boulter played a full clay-court season in 2024, even if she failed to win a match on the main tour. But she has admitted that, up until the last couple of seasons, “I stayed as far away from it [clay] as possible because of my [injury-prone] body”. Here was an example of that clay-phobia we mentioned earlier, and Boulter is not alone. Look at Emma Raducanu, who could have travelled to Paris for last week’s qualifying event but chose to stay home and train on the grass instead.

The way the system is set up, most British players are content to put clay in the “too hard” box. The incentives are all pointing that way. As Boulter’s post pointed out, the French Open comes right before the grass-court season, when they are playing at home, receiving a bunch of cosy wild cards, and taking on plenty of bewildered Spaniards who feel exactly the same way about Wimbledon that Britons do about the French Open.

As we started with a blunt-speaking Australian, let’s finish with another. After losing to Zhizhen Zhang on Sunday, Aleksandar Vukic told reporters that “the best feeling is throwing away the clay shoes at the end, they’re disgusting right now. So that’s the first thing I’m going to do when I get back in the room and then it will be on to the grass – less grunting, more serves. It’s a nice switch.”