Encounter: Tennis Dirtballers Of Russell Road Racquet Club

Established 1999: Tennis players who specialize in clay courts.

Red clay courts are as rare in Indiana as a serve-and-volley player, gone the way of Björn Borg and John McEnroe. And what makes these five in Bloomington even more unusual is their setting in a quiet rural area a few miles north of Indiana University. “We’ve seen snakes on the court, we’ve got foxes,” says Barb Mills, who runs the club with her husband, Ken Hydinger. They believe the club is the only one in the state with red clay. “We’ve got deer, groundhogs in the barn. You just never know what you’re going to see.”

When Indy hosted the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships from 1969 to 1987, the surface was green sandy clay, not the iconic brick hue underfoot at the French Open championships in Paris this month. But that didn’t stop Hydinger and Mills, who also coach tennis at Bloomington High School North, from unearthing some of the stuff from quarries around Bloomington. After trucking in 20 loads of clay, they spent the 1990s turning an unused horse farm into the tennis hideaway it is now: Russell Road Racquet Club, 100-plus members strong.

The softness of red clay offers some perks. “It takes some getting used to,” says one veteran member. “But it’s much easier on your knees, hips, and back. And it’s just beautiful.” The courts are also five to 10 degrees cooler than asphalt ones, since clay doesn’t soak up as much heat. Hydinger likes them because the surface blunts power and gives players more time to set up a shot, forcing them to take a more cerebral approach to each point. Members must sweep the courts after each match and water them sometimes, necessary steps to maintain clay. “This is a club in the country,” Mills says, “not a country club.”