Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg are the greatest clay-court players in tennis history.
They dominated their respective eras on their favorite surface with scarcely a blemish to their near-perfect records at the French Open.
All tennis fanatics have fantasized about this match, so it's time to play it out.
The purpose is not to determine the greatest player of all time, but to have fun exploring each specific match with one set of conditions, including court surface, racket technology and a given date.
The reader is encouraged to vote for the winner in the poll question, and to provide any comments, perspectives or other angles that will add to the conversation.
Court: Court Philippe Chatrier, Le Stade Roland Garros, featuring the finest European red clay, which slows the ball down and produces a high bounce, great for baseline players.
Rackets: Both players will use the graphite Wilson Hammer 6.2si (1994). They may choose the head size between 95 and 110 square inches.
For Borg, this will be a major upgrade from his wooden racket with the tiny sweet spot. This racket is designed for baseliners with the optimum control and spin for an early 90s racket. Nadal should adjust but will not get the same power or strength with his strokes.
Strings: The strings will be restricted to natural gut, which is great for topspin, but less so for slice. Gut will break often enough, especially if Borg insists on stringing his rackets with 80 pounds of tension.
Note on strings: Nadal and most modern players are using the latest version of polyester strings, which add much greater power and especially spin. (Many players also use a hybrid of polyester and gut, depending on their games.)
Many insiders claim the strings are revolutionizing the kind of power, control and spin modern baseliners get. A section in Strokes of Genius by L. Jon Wertheim gives an excellent profile of this change.
Some experts even claim Nadal won recent Grand Slams with higher-tech polyester, as reported in USA TODAY.com’s “Nadal takes advantage of new technology in strings.” Nadal and Borg will have this advantage neutralized—the former with lesser strings and racket technology, the latter with enhanced hitting and control.
Tale of the Tape: Bjorn Borg
Bjorn Borg, holder of six French Open titles (49-2 record) from 1974-1981, will be represented by his 1979 self.
He is the Godfather of topspin, perfect for the baseline game he loves to play on clay.
He possesses an adequate serve and can finish points at the net, though he is more content to trade strokes and hit passing shots. He has Federer-esque skill and touch with shot-making.
Borg is an all-tool athlete with excellent footwork, speed and defense. He hits heavy topspin with both forehand and backhand.
In 2008, ESPN.com chose Borg as the most complete player in history, citing his footwork and mental strength as the best ever.
He did all this with a wooden racket, but now will be given a more powerful and forgiving weapon.
Will he have enough game and stamina to fight off Nadal’s relentless barrage of topspin?
Tale of the Tape: Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal, winner of six French Open titles (45-1 record) from 2005-2011, will be represented by his 2010 self.
He is the modern standard on clay, including multiple title wins over the great Roger Federer.
He wants to hit his unique forehand to create high-bouncing topspin and keep Borg pinned behind the baseline. His serve is solid and he can go to the net, but will rarely look to do so on clay.
Nadal’s determination to attack the ad court is built on consistency.
He does not commit as many unforced errors as other highly regarded opponents and will track down and return his opponent’s best shots, even from deep behind the baseline.
His mental fortitude is one of his greatest assets, but will it be superior to possibly the coolest assassin the game has ever known?
How Borg Might Attack Nadal
Borg’s ground strokes are virtually equal from either side. He hits the ball high and hard and will look to move Nadal from side to side. He works points like Andre Agassi, setting up advantage after advantage, not always looking for winners, but controlling the match and forcing errors.
He will look to keep Nadal on the run until the physical and mental toll is too much. Borg would rather trade 10 strokes than look to finish the point off in two or three shots.
Borg’s backhand is honed from some of his hockey experience as a youth in Sweden. It’s kind of like a slap shot: he finishes high and lets go before the stroke is completed.
His forehand is best described by novelist Tim Spears in The Guardian, "He withdrew the racket high behind him and brought his arm down and then up to the ball in a wide cart wheeling whirl of topspin, following through so far that the racket flew behind his left ear.”
Borg wants—and expects—a long match with Nadal.
He rarely loses five-set matches and thinks Nadal will eventually fatigue. If he does find Nadal’s topspin and power troubling, he may attack Nadal’s backhand more, while coming in to cover the net.
He knows he has more variety, but he will patiently wait for adjustments. If Novak Djokovic can duel almost six hours with Nadal, he may plan for seven hours.
How Nadal Might Attack Borg
Nadal will execute his relentless forehand, hoping to overwhelm the old-school Swede.
There is no back-up plan. He will look to hit harder, higher and with greater purpose.
There will be some awesome “Vamos!” winners.
If Nadal can tie up Borg’s backhand the way he does with Roger Federer, Nadal will win the war.
But it’s not likely Nadal will win with only this strategy. Borg’s footwork and sense of anticipation is awesome, so Nadal will need to rip some backhand winners up the line.
Nadal can also come in occasionally, if Borg floats any lazy balls. He must view the tapes of Adriano Panatta, the only man to defeat Borg at Roland Garros.
Panatta did it twice, both times relying on a big serve, cutting down Borg’s topspin with aggressive strokes and finishing off volleys.
Finally, Nadal will control the pace of the match, and look to out-muscle Borg. He may sprint off the court, bounce on his feet and throw in some fist pumps. The fans will feel the energy, and this may propel Nadal in the greatest fight of his life.
Both players have legendary fitness. Who will wear down first? It’s possible to outlast Nadal, as Djokovic did at the recent Australian Open.
Nadal has irritated Federer with his extended time between service points, toweling off and adjusting his shorts.
Borg, however, will not be bothered.
He often kicks the back of his shoes, checks his racket strings, blows on his fingers and shifts into a Zen-like trance. He won’t even react to Nadal’s momentum.
Nadal knows and practices modern diet and conditioning. He has also had many more matches than Borg that involve pure baseline exchanges.
John Lloyd once referred to Borg’s fitness as the best ever.
Borg has had troubles with left-handers Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but maybe this will help him prepare for Nadal's serve.
He also had difficulties with left-hander Roscoe Tanner, but Tanner was one of the hardest servers in history, once uncorking a serve over 150 mph with a late 70s racket.
Will this come down to a battle of psychology? Who is tougher? Who can rise above the grind and the pain?
Which player looks cooler? Nadal’s Nike headband and clothing will show a chiseled physique. Borg’s Fila clothing, scruffy beard and Viking locks are a fitting appearance for the ice man.
Both are great champions who have handled pressure, defeated great opponents and intimidated their opposition on clay.
Something has to give.
How long will this match last? Will one player gain an edge serving or setting up easier points? Which player will have the subtleties to overcome the other?
There can never be a greater match on clay.
Cast your vote and your comments.