One glance at the men’s tennis world rankings is all it takes to understand the role clay courts play in producing world-class tennis players. Eighteen of the top 200 are Italian, 14 are French, 14 are Spanish and 10 are from Argentina. All these countries are known for using natural clay as their most played-on surface.
On the other hand, just nine players are from the US, while there are only five from the United Kingdom, where hard courts and synthetic grass dominate.
This trend can also be seen in women’s tournaments. Where five of the top 200 are French, six are Spanish, but just three come from the UK.
Former club pro, Sutton says that this is not a coincidence. As the owner of Clay Court Services, Sutton is now dedicated to bringing more natural clay courts to the UK. He believes that this is the only way the UK will produce players who are as good as Kyle Edmund - to win the 2019 French Open in the latest tennis betting - or Jo Konta, ranked 23 and 41 in the world respectively, never mind generational talents such as Andy Murray.
“There is a cultural belief that clay doesn’t suit the UK,” says Sutton, who turned his hobby into his job when he set up Clay Court Services in 2012. “But from a coach’s point of view, it is easier to teach a youngster on a slow surface. When you learn to drive, you don’t get in a Formula 1 car, you go at 20mph.”
Playing on clay surfaces has been associated with some health benefits such as less stress on the knees and back. “I’ve spoken to top-class coaches who say it has added 10 years onto their coaching lives. When you’re on a hard court seven or eight hours a day, your body can suffer quite dramatically,” Sutton says.
“You can slide on clay courts. Top professionals are playing such a harsh game, but they can fly into shots with the slide helping absorb the impact on joints and ligaments,” he adds.
Clay courts are not popular in the UK as they’re made from shale, a sedimentary rock that is difficult to sustain in bad weather and produces “a lot of bad bounces” if poorly maintained. But Sutton is only interested in the best.
Clay Court Services are the sole suppliers to the UK of Terre Davis clay, the company based in Cremona, Northern Italy, that supplies clay to the Rome Masters, Monte Carlo Masters and several other tennis federations around the world.
“Terre Davis hadn’t really exported to the UK – they didn’t think there was a market there,” he says. “But on a small budget, we were able to develop a little bit of a makeover for some small clubs to get their clay courts to play better.”
Sutton installed the UK’s first court built from Terre Davis’ clay at his home club in Little Aston, Birmingham, before doing the same at various others around the country.
Sutton’s work got the attention of the LTA, so much so that four courts are now being built at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. “It’s a good start,” he says, “but we’ll have to see, from a cultural point of view, whether they think this is the way forward.”
If done correctly Sutton believes that the UK is capable of emulating Australia’s success.“Australia used to dominate world tennis in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but that began to drop off,” he says. “I spoke to an ex-pro, Terry Rocavert, who used to play on the clay circuit. He went back to the Australian federation with this Italian clay. They built over 40 clay courts, including seven or eight at Melbourne Park, and they’ve now got 11 players in the top 200,” he added.
Weather in the UK means that replacing all the synthetic and hard courts with the red dirt is not practical, but Sutton has gone to great lengths to ensure that the courts that can be built are looked after as skilfully as they need to be.
“Groundsmen in the UK are basically used to sweeping the synthetic courts, hoovering or brushing them," he says.
With the LTA, Sutton is going to fly out the head technical director of Foro Italico (home of the Rome Masters). With his expertise in clay, he will train UK groundsmen to help keep the courts in tip-top condition.
At the age of 63, Sutton is more passionate about tennis and playing on clay more than ever. “I love to see the players play on this Italian clay court,” he says. “I love watching them play, learning and grinding. I find it exciting, I’m wondering is there going to be a good effect from this.”
Sutton hopes that as top players eventually gain access to these as a facility to get it into their system, rather than have to go down to London or go out to La Manga.
“My dream is that one day a British player will win the French Open as a result of having the opportunity to play tennis on a UK clay court,” he adds.
That hasn’t been done since Sue Barker in 1976, but should his progress continue, Sutton’s vision may not be as unrealistic as it might currently seem. This may effect tennis betting odds.
* This article was originally posted on Betway Insider.