After surveying hard-court and grass-court champions, thoughts turn naturally toward the clay.
While grass courts had a long run, being in place since the time tennis began, hard courts have a very broad one based on their popularity today.
On the other hand, the clay court's place in tennis annals remains steady but narrow as we look at that surface and how it impacted the history of tennis competition.
Today, for example, in the ATP, 37 tournaments are held on artificial surfaces—hard courts, both indoor and outdoor. Seven ATP tournaments are held on grass, while 22 clay-court tournaments dominate the action in April and May.
Clay courts remain popular in continental Europe and South America which has been true since clay courts gained prominence in the mid 1920s—especially with the opening of Stade Roland Garros in Paris.
Play on clay is slower, allowing the opposing player more time to react. It requires more stamina because rallies are extended and generally points are not over quickly. More that that, clay is a thinking player’s game with strategy an important ingredient.
The following 15 players are regarded as the best ever on clay. They have all won the only Grand Slam held on clay—the French Open—at least three times.
The starting point is 1925 when play at the French Championships was “open” to players from all nations.
Note: Suzanne Lenglen won six French Open Championships but only two since 1925.
Kuerten: Three French Open Titles, Three Finals
Gustavo Kuerten won three grand slam finals on the red dirt of Stade Roland Garros.
Kuerten grew to become a very popular champion whose love of playing on the red dirt was obvious when he broke into his infectious grin at the end of a tough match.
His first win at Roland Garros came against Spaniard Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in 1997.
The Brazilian returned to the French Open to win back to back titles in 2000-2001.
Kuerten defeated Magnus Norman in 2000, 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6.
The next year he was victorious again, defeating Alex Corretja 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0.
Suffering numerous injuries throughout his career, Kuerten’s play on clay was regarded as one of the best—but ultimately his success was short lived.
Kuerten won 80 percent of his 2,891 service games on clay (2,313). He won 181 matches on clay and lost 78, which gave him an overall clay-court winning percentage of 69.9. During his career, he won 14 clay-court titles.
Kuerten’s overall winning percentage for his French Open appearances stands at 81.8.
Krahwinkel Sperling: Three French Open Titles, Three Finals
Hilde Krahwinkel Sperling was the first of the great German women who excelled in tennis. Many called her the greatest female German player prior to the arrival of Steffi Graf in the 1980s.
Krahwinkel Sperling built her game as a counter-puncher, using speed and determination to wear down her opponents.
She won the French Open three times consecutively from 1935-1937, making her one of four women to accomplish that feat. The others were Helen Wills Moody, Monica Seles and Justine Henin.
She participated in eight French Open championships in the 1930s with a winning percentage of 83.33 (25-5).
Seles: Three French Open Titles, Four Finals
Monica Seles won the French Open three times in four appearances.
Her three wins, however, were consecutive from 1990 to 1992.
Seles holds the record for the youngest French Open champion ever, at 16 years and six months. She won that first championship in 1990, defeating defending champion and world No. 1 Steffi Graf in the process.
Seles’ grunting became the talk of the tennis world early on. But it was the little Yugoslavian’s aggressive style of play and her early return of the ball that made her game so dominant in the early '90s.
Seles stepped into the court and hit the ball hard on the rise, which robbed her opponents of valuable time to react.
It was on clay that her aggressive tactics paid large dividends—giving her three championships.
Then, too, Seles loved the crowds in Paris.
It was unfortunate that after Seles was stabbed on court in Germany in 1993 she never recaptured her winning form or her obvious joy on court.
Throughout her career, Seles won 14 titles on clay courts out of her total of 53.
Seles competed at the French Open during 11 seasons. Her winning percentage stands at 87.1 percent (54-8).
Lendl: Three French Open Titles, Five Finals
Ivan Lendl finally won his first grand slam in 1984 by defeating American John McEnroe in the finals of the French Open—this after losing the first two sets.
Lendl won 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5. For a long time it looked like he would finish second-best again, but then McEnroe suffered a melt down and lost his way.
The win at the 1984 French Open marked the beginning of eight grand slam wins, with three of them coming at the French Open in Paris.
After his win in 1984, Lendl went on to win the French Open again in 1986 by defeating Swede Michael Pernfors in the final 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 and then again in 1987 by defeating Mats Wilander 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6.
In 1981 the Czech was the runner up to Bjorn Borg in the Swede's last French Open final.
Lendl was also the runner-up to Mats Wilander in 1985, losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
During his career, Lendl won 329 matches on clay while losing 75, which gave him a winning percentage of 81.4. In total Lendl won 28 titles on clay.
Lendl’s overall winning percentage at the French Open is 81.5.
Wilander: Three French Open Titles, Five Finals
Swede Mats Wilander won the French Open three times in 1982, 1985 and 1988.
In 1982, Wilander surprised the tennis world by coming through unseeded as a teenager to defeat Guillermo Vilas in the final 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Because of his obvious prowess on clay, the young Swede was heralded as the next coming of Borg.
In 1985, Wilander managed to upend Ivan Lendl in the final of the French Open 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
Then in 1988, Wilander met and defeated Frenchman Henri Leconte 7-5, 6-2, 6-1.
Additionally, Wilander made the French Open final in 1983, losing to Frenchman Yannick Noah 6-2, 7-5, 7-6, and again in 1987, losing to Ivan Lendl 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6.
Throughout his career, the Swede won 264 matches on clay while losing 80. This gave him a 76.7 winning percentage on clay. He won 20 clay court titles during his time playing professional tennis.
Wilander’s overall winning percentage at the French Open remains at 83.9.
Lacoste: Three French Open Titles, Five Finals
Rene Lacoste was one of the Four French Musketeers along with Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon playing tennis in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Lacoste was noted as the No. 1 player in 1926 and 1927.
He won his first French Open championship on clay in 1925, defeating countryman Jean Borotra in the final 7-5, 6-1, 6-4.
In 1927 Lacoste defeated Big Bill Tilden to win his second French Championship on clay. It took the Frenchman five sets to turn Tilden back.
In 1929 Lacoste once again defeated his countryman Jean Borotra in five sets to win his third title—this time on the clay of Stade Roland Garros.
Lacoste was the runner-up in 1926, 1928, and progressed to the fourth round in 1932, ending with a winning percentage of 92.31 (36-3).
Sanchez Vicario: Three French Open Titles, Six Finals
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario made six trips to the finals at Stade Roland Garros, winning the French Open title three times in 1989, 1994 and 1998.
Her three wins at the French Open were over Steffi Graf, Mary Pierce and Monica Seles, respectively.
The fiery Spanish lady, nicknamed the "Barcelona Bumblebee" by the irascible Bud Collins, proved to be a handful to any opponent standing on the other side of the net.
The tenacious Sanchez Vicario refused to give up on a point, running down balls and fighting for each and every point as if her life depended on it.
It was her all-out competitive spirit that made the young lady from Spain a winner.
At the time she won her first French Open title, Sanchez Vicario was the youngest player ever to win it, at age 17.
Monica Seles, however, soon supplanted this record by winning her first French Open championship at age 16 years and six months the following year.
During her career, Sanchez Vicario won 19 out of her 29 total titles on clay courts.
Sanchez Vicario’s winning percentage at the French Open remains 83.7 percent (72-14).
Helen Wills Moody
Wills Moody: Four French Open Titles, Four Finals
Helen Wills Moody of the United States played tennis in the 1920s and 1930s.
In addition to winning Wimbledon eight times and the U.S. Open seven times, Wills-Moody won the French Open title four times—three consecutively from 1928-1930 and again in 1932.
She was the No. 1 ranked woman several times during her career, playing at the same time as the famous Suzanne Lenglen.
In 1928 Wills-Moody defeated Eileen Bennett in the final 6-1, 6-2 to claim her first French title. The following year in 1929 she won over Frenchwoman Simone Mathieu 6-3, 6-4.
In 1930 Wills Moody defeated countrywoman Helen Jacobs 6-2, 6-1 at Roland Garros. After missing the tournament in 1931, she came back again in 1932 to defeat Mathieu again, claiming her fourth French Open title.
Wills-Moody won four of the five French Open Championships she entered, resulting in a 95.45 winning percentage (21-1).
Cochet: Five French Open Titles, Four since 1925, Five Finals
Henri Cochet was one of the French Four Musketeers along with Rene Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon who dominated tennis in the 1920s and early 1930s.
He won the French Open Championships four times in 1928, 1928, 1930 and 1932. Cochet participated in eight tournaments after the French Championships opened to all nations, compiling a winning percentage of 90.9 (40-4).
In 1926 Cochet defeated countryman and Davis Cup partner Rene Lacoste in the final of the French Championships 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 to win his first title.
Two years later in 1928 in the first French Open Championship held on the grounds at Stade Roland Garros, Cochet defeated Lacoste again 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 to win his second French Championship.
In 1930 Big Bill Tilden from the U.S. faced Cochet in the final with the Frenchman winning 3-6, 8-6, 6-3, 6-1. Cochet was the No. 1 seed with Tilden as No. 2.
Cochet’s final French Championship came in 1932 against Italian Giorgio de Stefani. He won 6-0, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3. Cochet would reach the finals in 1933 but failed to capture his fifth French Open title in the last match.
In 1933 Cochet turned professional.
Henin: Four French Open Titles, Four Finals
Justine Henin first retired from tennis in May of 2008, just prior to the commencement of the French Open in Paris.
At that time she was in line to win her fifth French Open title.
Everyone thought Henin would do exactly that until the Belgian stunned the tennis world by announcing her retirement from the game.
Out of retirement in 2010, Henin headed into action on the clay once again.
There was still no one who stood out as a challenger to Henin at the 2010 French Open championships.
But the Belgian failed to make the finals in 2010, even though many expected her to pick up her fifth French Open trophy. Instead, she lost in the fourth round.
Justine Henin’s game was made for the red dirt, where her pin-point accuracy and her mental sharpness gave her the necessary edge over bigger and more powerful opponents.
Henin played smart, aggressive tennis aided by a powerful one-handed backhand that allowed her more reach and more variety on that side.
Henin competed in eight French Open tournaments, making it to four finals and winning all four, including three consecutive times from 2005 to 2007.
Throughout her career, Henin won 13 clay court titles out of a total of 43.
Her overall winning percentage at Stade Roland Garros stands at 90.5 percent (38-4).
Court: Five French Open Titles, Six Finals
Margaret Court of Australia won the French Open five times in 1962, 1964, 1969, 1970 and 1973.
In all, Court played in 10 French Open singles contests, winning half of them in women's singles.
The Aussie phenom holds more records in the sport of tennis than any other player living or dead. She ruled the tennis world with her impressive career in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
Her career, however, spans two eras and puts her in two worlds both before and after the Open Era in tennis.
Court still ranks very high when considering her appearances in French Open finals.
Her total winning percentage at the French Open remains at 91.08 percent (56-5).
Borg: Six French Open Titles, Six Finals
Bjorn Borg won his first French Open Championship in 1974 on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros.
The Swede met and defeated Spaniard Manuel Orantes 2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.
The following year he won the title again, this time over Argentine Guillermo Vilas 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.
After a brief interruption, Borg came back in 1978 to win his second title over Vilas 6-1, 6-1, 6-3.
The Swede won the following year in 1979 by defeating Victor Pecci 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4.
In 1980, Borg triumphed again on the red dirt in Paris, defeating American Vitas Gerulaitis 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
Defeating Ivan Lendl in 1981, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, Borg won his final French Open championship.
The Swede won every French Open final he reached.
The only man to defeat Borg on the clay courts of Paris was Adriano Panatta, who won the French Open in 1976, defeating Borg in the quarterfinals. Panatta also defeated Borg in the fourth round of the French Open in 1973.
Throughout his career, Borg won 245 matches on clay while losing 39, giving him an overall wining percentage on clay of 86.3. The Swede won 30 clay-court titles during his abbreviated career.
Borg’s winning percentage at the French Open is 96.08.
Graf: Six French Open Titles, Nine Finals
Steffi Graf appeared in nine French Open finals, winning six of them over the course of her career. Like Chris Evert, the German is also considered a natural on the red clay.
Appearing in four consecutive finals at Stade Roland Garros from 1987 to 1990, Graf won two of them.
The German's last final came in 1999, when she defeated Martina Hingis in a memorable match with the young Swiss, suffering a huge meltdown after gaining what most would have surmised as an insurmountable lead.
Her win over Hingis marked Graf's final appearance at the French Open and was her last Grand Slam victory, the 22nd of her stellar career.
Graf used a superior service game combined with a lethal inside out forehand drive and a backhand slice to nullify her opponents.
Her foot speed on court also made it almost impossible to get anything past the wily German, who stalked the baseline, waiting to pounce.
Even her volleying skills were more than adequate on the red clay.
Graf appeared in the French Open Finals in 1987, '88, '89, '90, '92, '93, '95, '96 and '99.
Throughout her career, the German won 32 clay court titles out of a total of 107.
Winning six in all, Graf’s winning percentage at the French Open is 89.7 percent (87-10).
Nadal: Seven French Open Titles, Seven Finals
Rafael Nadal is the only active player on our list. That means he is capable of putting more distance between himself and those aspiriing to reach his level in subsequent years.
To date, Nadal has won seven French Open titles, beginning in 2005 when he won the title over Mariano Puerta on his first try on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros.
In 2006, Nadal met World No. 1 Roger Federer in the French Open final, defeating the Swiss 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6.
The following year in 2007, Federer and Nadal again met in the French Open final with the Majorcan winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Nadal won his fourth consecutive French Open final in 2008 by dismissing the Swiss in straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-0––the worst major defeat in Federer’s distinguished career.
Nadal was dismissed in the fourth round of the French Open in 2009 by Swede Robin Soderling.
Nadal came back in 2010, however, to win the French Open title—defeating Soderling in the final 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
Once again facing and defeating Federer in the final, Nadal won his only major in 2011 at the French Open,
In 2012 the Majorcan defeated new rival Novak Djokovic to win his historic seventh French Open title, moving past Bjorn Borg who held the men's record for most French Open titles set back in 1981.
To date Nadal has won 254 matches on clay, losing 19 which gives him a 93.0 winning percentage on clay. So far in his career Nadal has won 36 clay-court titles.
Nadal’s overall winning percentage at the French Open is 98.11 (52-1), the highest to date.
Evert: Seven French Open Titles, Nine Finals
Chris Evert, in winning seven of nine finals, remains an undisputed leader on the clay at the French Open in Paris, surpassing most of her male counterparts.
Clay brought out the strengths of Evert’s game—her patience, determination and her ability to construct points.
She was tireless and unflappable on the red clay at Stade Roland Garros—hence her nickname, the "Iron Princess."
The fact that she owns the clay-court record with a 125-match win streak from 1973 to 1979 illustrates her prowess on the surface.
During that entire run, she lost only seven sets.
It was the one surface on which Evert generally prevailed over her archrival Martina Navratilova, whose one weakness might have been the slow clay.
They met in four finals on the red dirt with Evert coming out on top in three sets.
In all, Evert appeared in nine finals at the French Open in 1973, '74, '75, '79, '80, '83, '84, '85 and '86, winning them all, except in 1973 and 1984.
From 1972-1989 Evert maintained a 94.05 winning percentage on clay (316-20).
Evert’s winning percentage at the French Open stands at 92.86 percent (78-6).