Game, set and match on unsafe surfaces

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Researchers from Sheffield University, seeking to end simmering rows over slippery courts involving top flight tennis players, could make a major contribution to reducing accidents in industry.

The researchers have been working with the International Tennis Federation and colleagues at Exeter University to develop a machine that tests the grip of tennis courts.

Their machine applies large forces to a surface to mimic the impact of a tennis player on the court – which can be up to four times their weight in the case of top stars.

But, the implications of the research don’t end there.

The Sheffield University rig has already been used to understand the traction of studded football boots on artificial pitches and there are plans to use it in health and safety assessments of the risks of accidents due to slipping at work.

In the initial tennis court application, the Sheffield University team tested a hard court in dry conditions and two artificial clay court surfaces in wet and dry conditions.

They found the size of sand particles in clay affects the friction in the wet – but, while the surface gets slipperier in the wet when the particles are small, the player’s grip can actually increase on a wet court when the particles are larger.

They also found out why some players can slide on hard courts – a technique mainly seen on clay.

“We found that that if a player is strong and daring enough to apply a high enough force at the right angle, then it’s actually easier to start sliding on a hard court than a clay court,” explained Dr James Clarke, from Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Insufficient or too much friction between the player’s shoe and the surface can affect the risk of injury.

Only last year Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal threatened to boycott the Madrid Masters if the tournament continued to be played on a new blue clay surface.

They complained that it was too slippery, and consequently unsafe.

The researchers findings have been published online in the Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology.