Hardcourt has become the predominant court surface in tennis, beating out traditional surfaces like grass and clay.
Synthetic materials are more weather-resistant and let players control the ball with greater accuracy. Hardcourt’s popularization has also led to a recent discovery — sliding is sometimes better than running.
Instead of running across the court to reach the ball, professional players have learned that sliding can be more effective than taking an extra few steps.
This playstyle used to be common on clay courts, and now it’s the prevailing strategy on hardcourts too.
How does the sliding on hardcourts work? Let’s explore the physics behind sliding, the pros and cons of the technique and how you can add sliding to your repertoire.
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The Science Behind Sliding on Hardcourts
Hardcourts have a lower surface compression than grass or clay, which means that less energy is dissipated when an object strikes the surface. Lower surface compression equals higher friction. Friction is the physical force that stops the momentum of objects in motion.
Momentum is simply an object’s mass multiplied by its velocity.
So, if hardcourts aren’t supposed to be slippery, why do tennis players slide on them so often? The answer is simple — because they know the court will slow them down.
Sliding against the gritty surface lets them bring their momentum to a screeching halt so they can quickly change directions.
Professional tennis players are masters at using the relationship between friction and momentum to their advantage. Even though they’re moving at full speed and focused on the game, they’re still aware of the court’s resistance and can change their movements accordingly.
They can also determine the best sliding technique for each shot.
Proper Sliding Technique
To get a good grasp of the proper sliding technique, it’s always best to observe the professionals. Let’s start by analyzing the movements of Novak Djokovic.
Rather than using stutter steps or cross steps to slow down before each return shot, Djokovic widens his base, plants his foot and lets the hardcourt surface do its job.
He also lets his other foot drag on the court, which helps him slow down more quickly. He knows the court’s friction is strong enough to stop his momentum in time for the shot.
As a right-handed player, he uses the forehand technique when moving to his right and the backhand technique when moving to his left. In both instances, he plants with his right foot to stabilize his body for the return shot.
Left-handed players like Rafael Nadal use the opposite technique. Nadal always plants with his left foot and drags his right foot. He slides several feet across the court but still has time to change direction and respond to the next shot.
Whether you’re a righty or a lefty, the main principle of sliding is the same — you must put all of your weight on your dominant foot and trust the court’s friction to slow you down.
If you hesitate to slide or try to shift your weight in the process, you’ll fall or injure yourself. You must be 100% committed to the slide for the technique to work.
What are the Pros & Cons Associated with Sliding on Hardcourts?
PRO: Gives You a Strategic Advantage
Sliding has been proven to give tennis players a distinct strategic advantage at the highest level. Top players have used sliding on the French Open’s clay courts for decades, and now we’re seeing the same trend on hardcourt surfaces. This playstyle is the next step in the evolution of tennis.
The advantage of sliding on hardcourts first became obvious in the mid-2010s when Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka — the top five players at the time — started sliding more often.
Close analysis of their matches found that they utilized sliding in three out of 10 return shots during the 2015 U.S. Open and Australian Open.
From this point onward, sliding has become a necessity for elite players. Almost all professional matches take place on hardcourts, with the notable exceptions of the French Open (clay) and Wimbledon (grass). If you want to play with the world’s best, you need to learn how to slide.
CON: Requires a High Fitness Level
The main factor that prevents most players from sliding effectively is their fitness levels. You must have exceptional core strength, joint flexibility and conditioning if you want to slide during tennis without injuring yourself.
That’s why sliding on hardcourts almost exclusively happens at professional and semi-professional levels.
Doctors and tennis coaches alike don’t recommend sliding for recreational players because of its complexity. The average player simply doesn’t have the physical tools to make a sliding maneuver.
You could adjust your training program to focus on developing your sliding technique, but progress will be slow.
Even if you take a break from tennis for just a few weeks, your endurance can decrease by 4-25% due to a lower blood oxygen volume and a drop in cardiac output.
If you want to master your sliding skills, you must train without extended interruptions. Most players don’t have the time, energy or money to make this commitment, so their sliding skills never reach a high level.
PRO: Basic Equipment Requirements
If you have the physical attributes to slide on hardcourts, then you just need one more thing — a good pair of tennis shoes.
No fancy footwear or equipment are required. Professional players have demonstrated that a variety of shoe brands work with equal effectiveness when it comes to sliding. The key feature you need to pay attention to is the shoe’s outer sole.
Research has shown that soles with modified herringbone patterns made of a hard-density rubber are the most effective for sliding on hardcourts.
This design provides the support and stability needed to slide without injury. It also allows for more consistent play during rainy weather.
Players at any skill level can find affordable tennis shoes that provide solid traction on hardcourts in all weather conditions. The only thing that matters is if the shoes have rigid outer soles, and most tennis shoes today meet that requirement. Everything else comes down to personal preference.
CON: Increases Risk of Injury
Extensive research has shown that playing on high-friction surfaces increases the injury risk for tennis players. The most definitive study published in 1987 found that injury rates were five to eight times higher when playing on synthetic surfaces compared to courts covered with loose sand.
Greater friction inhibits natural body movements, which leads to more leg injuries.
To minimize the injury risk, hardcourt brands like Plexicushion and SportMaster now use a combination of latex, rubber and plastic so players can slide more gracefully.
Court maintenance has also greatly improved, as professional hardcourts get resurfaced every few years so players aren’t sliding on worn surfaces.
Add Sliding to Your Tennis Game
If you’re serious about tennis and are looking to gain a new advantage, then you need to add sliding to your game. Hardcourts are much more popular than grass or clay in the modern game, so you must adjust your playstyle accordingly.
Start by ramping up your exercise program and getting yourself a new pair of tennis shoes, then monitor your progress from there.