Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and 16 Greatest French Open Champions in One Draw

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2013

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and 16 Greatest French Open Champions in One Draw

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    While Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer saw the birth of their rivalry on French Open red clay, tennis fans often wonder how they would match up against other clay-court champions of the past.

    How would Federer perform against other red-clay specialists? Could someone from another era defeat Nadal?

    It is impossible to simulate fair conditions and technology, but we will play this out at 2013 Roland Garros with dry conditions and the slower Dunlop balls from 2012. Players from other eras may be projected with modern rackets and adaptations as we can fairly hypothesize.

    Feel free to debate these particulars.

    The following is a playoff format to test these champions.

    There will be four top seeds determined by French Open success. The top half of the draw will feature No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal and No. 4 seed Ivan Lendl (who barely gets the nod over Mats Wilander). The bottom half of the draw will include No. 2 seed Bjorn Borg and No. 3 seed Gustavo Kuerten.

    The top 16 champions from the time of Borg were chosen, but a few champions were left out. Those that made the cut were included because of other clay-court credentials in their careers.

    All of the matchups below were randomly drawn, so this is only one of many possible brackets.

     

    Top Half

    1. '08 Rafael Nadal vs. '92 Jim Courier

        '95 Thomas Muster vs. '83 Yannick Noah

     

        '88 Mats Wilander vs. '99 Andre Agassi

    4. '86 Ivan Lendl vs. '94 Sergi Bruguera

     

    Bottom Half

    3. '01 Gustavo Kuerten vs. '77 Guillermo Vilas

        '89 Michael Chang vs. '90 Andres Gomez

     

       '09 Roger Federer vs. '03 Juan Carlos Ferrero

    2. '80 Bjorn Borg vs. '96 Yevgeny Kafelnikov

     

    Here is a look at how the players may have tried to attack each other in the opening matches and then in later rounds of the French Open.

'08 Rafael Nadal vs. '92 Jim Courier

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    Jim Courier nearly won three straight French Open titles from 1991-93 behind a big forehand and good fitness. His run ended when he was troubled by Sergi Bruguera's high-bouncing topspin and superior speed.

    He would have very little chance to upset Rafael Nadal.

    Nadal's left-handed topspin would overwhelm Courier's modest backhand, and he would track down all but Courier's very best inside-out forehands. Courier had trouble risking bigger shots against Bruguera and chalked up 67 unforced errors in 1993 (five sets) and 64 unforced errors in their 1994 semifinal (four sets).

    Courier's trump card of intense concentration is still no match for the French Open king.

    Huge Advantage to Nadal

'95 Thomas Muster vs. '83 Yannick Noah

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    Yannick Noah became the hero for France with his upset title victory over Mats Wilander, and he was a very good clay-court player to go along with his all-around skills and athleticism.

    But against the Thomas Muster of 1995, Noah would have to use his big serve and volley skills to have even a slim chance to win.

    Muster was simply overpowering behind a nasty topspin forehand that jumped through the court. He also possessed an angled-topspin backhand and a toughness to grind and hit—match after match—with the kind of toll that would cause an ordinary player to collapse.

    Muster's 1995 clay season might be the best in history with a 65-2 record, 12 titles and a 40-match winning streak. He followed that with a 46-3 record and seven titles in 1996, but was upset in the French Open and soon dwindled in his great confidence and physical fitness.

    Huge Advantage to Muster

'88 Mats Wilander vs. '99 Andre Agassi

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    Mats Wilander will not beat himself, instead returning shot after shot with consistent depth and accuracy as he is famous for outlasting opponents.

    He is better than Andre Agassi with these two qualities.

    Agassi nearly lost his one French Open title, but survived two five-setters, showing that when he was motivated and fit, he could also go the distance. His footwork on clay was adequate, but he usually overpowered opponents with pristine groundstrokes, given the control he would have against Wilander.

    Agassi's backhand was much better than Wilander's.

    The best example of this matchup actually occurred in 1988 when 18-year-old Agassi met Wilander at the semifinals at Roland Garros. After four tough sets, Wilander shut the door with a bagel fifth set and went on to an easy straight-sets title win.

    It's easy to believe that a more experienced, better-conditioned 1999 Agassi could do much better.

    Slight Advantage to Agassi

'86 Ivan Lendl vs. '94 Sergi Bruguera

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    In 1992, 32-year-old Ivan Lendl crushed 21-year-old Sergi Bruguera, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1, in the opening round of the French Open.

    One year later, Bruguera was a different player as he hammered Lendl at Monte Carlo, 6-1, 6-2, in their final meeting before going on to win the French Open title.

    Lendl hit harder and was more aggressive from the baseline. He was a better server, and, at his peak in 1986, was almost invincible playing off grass. Lendl's topspin was harder and flatter, which would put the speedy Bruguera on a defensive mission to loop his heavy topspin.

    Bruguera was not always the fittest or toughest player on tour, but was very dominant in repeating as French Open champion in 1994, dropping only one set in the semifinals. He would have to hope his extreme Western grip and loopy topspin bothered Lendl's baseline rhythm.

    Solid Advantage to Lendl

'01 Gustavo Kuerten vs. '77 Guillermo Vilas

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    The battle of South American tennis greats would showcase the lefty Guillermo Vilas' open stance topspin, which was ready to hit crosscourt or up the line with remarkable consistency.

    At his best, he could beat everyone except Bjorn Borg, and, like Roger Federer's problem in defeating Roger Nadal at Roland Garros, he may have won several more French Open titles had Borg not stood in the way.

    Gustavo Kuerten had more height and athletic ease to his artistic strokes and had more modern strings to generate better power and a superior backhand to Vilas.

    Slight Advantage to Kuerten

'89 Michael Chang vs. '90 Andres Gomez

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    It's a little surprising that these two met only once—in 1989 at Forest Hills on green clay. Michael Chang won, 6-3, 7-6.

    Andres Gomez was a big veteran left-hander who was more at home on clay than Chang. He was smooth with good power on both wings and a strong server. He was a good grinder, but with a nice touch for making shots. He also played a lot of doubles.

    Chang was still more of a hard-court player, even though he won his only major at Roland Garros. This was more of a miracle with grueling matches through "moonballs" and pure hustle.

    Slight edge to Gomez

'09 Roger Federer vs. '03 Juan Carlos Ferrero

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    Most people might dismiss this match, but it could be a lot closer than comfort for Roger Federer.

    In fact, Juan Carlos Ferrero had potential to be a great player until his injuries, sickness and burnout in 2004 left him a shell of himself.

    Ferrero was very fast on clay and possessed a big forehand that would give Federer or anybody else problems. It would have been interesting to see him challenge Rafael Nadal if Ferrero could have built on his talents and peaked for a few more years.

    By 2009, Federer was past his peak in winning the French Open, but still awesome enough to win the title that had most eluded him. His heart and determination are actually underrated.

    Solid Advantage to Federer

'80 Bjorn Borg vs. '96 Yevgeny Kafelnikov

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    Yevgeny Kafelnikov had marvelous form and strokes, especially his textbook backhand. He probably should have won more Grand Slams, even if clay was not his best surface.

    The problem was, he would shrink away when the pressure grew greatest.

    Bjorn Borg would outhit, outlast and outthink Kafelnikov. No matter what Kafelnikov would try to do, Borg could do it better, and it's not even close.

    Huge Advantage to Borg

Quarterfinals: Top Quadrant

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    Not even 2008 Rafael Nadal could cruise through this bracket without trouble.

    He might not beat 1995 Thomas Muster in a match that would be worthy of an all-time final.

    Muster's forehand was harder and faster for his time. Suppose he could have today's newer strings that allow players to hit as hard as they want and still keep the ball in the court? No question that Muster's power would force Nadal to be the defender in this matchup.

    Nadal might not win the battle of backhands either, but his speed and comfort on clay was superior. He would be favored to outlast Muster for a fifth set. He can improvise better from defense to offense, and the handful of times he turned the tables could be the difference.

    Still, a passive Nadal would lose to Muster as he would have to take chances or suffer the fate of the Robin Soderling match.

    Muster was so locked in during his great two-year run that he intimidated everyone on clay. He was tough and resilient.

    Nadal has obviously had the greater career and would win any other year against Muster, but 1995 Muster was almost flawless.

    Slightest Edge to Nadal, but both players considered for the next round

Quarterfinals: Second Quadrant

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    The most likely matchup is 1986 Ivan Lendl vs. 1999 Andre Agassi.

    This could be a classic featuring Lendl's big forehand and aggressive baseline winners against the baseline control and beautiful groundstrokes that Agassi delivered.

    History is on Lendl's side. His late peak had little difficulty in defeating a young Agassi on hard courts, including at the 1988 and 1989 semifinals of the U.S. Open. He also won their only clay match at Forest Hills. Lendl won all six matches rather easily during this time, although Agassi did win their last two meetings in 1992 and 1993.

    Lendl also gets the nod for better conditioning and mental strength. His 1986 form was something Agassi never achieved, and on red clay, it would likely be three or four sets of Lendl's punishing power.

    If 1986 Lendl faced 1988 Wilander, there would be no secrets between the two of them. Wilander gets the edge in consistency, but Lendl—at his best—was too much for Wilander.

    Lendl is a good bet to advance to the semifinals.

Quarterfinals: Third Quadrant

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    Gustavo Kuerten and Michael Chang met with the former on the rise and the latter a fading veteran.

    They split lopsided hard-court encounters in 1997, but by 2000, Kuerten was, by far, the superior. He defeated Chang at Roland Garros in four easy sets. In 2001, he dealt Chang a pair of breadsticks at Rome.

    Kuerten's movement and groundstrokes on clay provide much more offense than Chang's counterpunching.

    Kuerten versus Gomez could be closer. Gomez is a big cat with plenty of touch and power to test Kuerten, whose superiority is his better backhand and overall quickness. Kuerten could glide all over the court, rip crosscourt shots from both sides and back up a good clay-court serve.

    The history of Vilas vs. Gomez showed Vilas winning their first four matches as his peak was winding down. Gomez then beat a fading Vilas six times at the end of his career. Vilas had better overall stokes and stamina. He was the superior player.

    Solid edge to Kuerten in defeating Gomez or Chang

Quarterfinals: Bottom Quadrant

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    Bjorn Borg vs. Roger Federer would be one of the great Wimbledon clashes ever, and on clay, it could be just as awesome.

    Assume that 1980 Borg gets to have a modern racket and strings. He would certainly be favored to defeat 2009 Federer.

    Borg's topspin is not as heavy as Nadal's, but he is more consistent with his depth, especially on the backhand side. With newer strings, he would kick it up nice and high to Federer's backhand to follow this part of the blueprint. He also would not feed Federer's forehand with short balls.

    Federer would probably take one set off Borg. At his best, he could hit through the court and look nearly infallible. The problem is that he cannot do that for three-of-five sets against top clay-court players. An aging Guga Kuerten humiliated Federer in straight sets in the 2004 French Open.

    Maybe Federer's slice and bigger serve could mix in enough guile with power, but Borg saw more variety of strategies and countered them effectively in his day.

    Solid Advantage to Borg

Semifinals: Top Half

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    Ivan Lendl took four of five career meetings against an earlier incantation of Thomas Muster. In 1994, an aging Lendl hung in for a three-set loss at the quarterfinals on the clay of Madrid, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.

    Both players had massive forehands and would attack with aggression. Lendl's serve was better, but Muster's backhand was superior on clay. He could hit with better angles and stretch Lendl.

    Lendl would triumph most years, but 1995 Muster gets the edge for raising clay-court tennis to a whole new level of power and intensity, foreshadowing what fans see with Rafael Nadal.

    Nadal has better footwork than Lendl on clay, and he would attack Lendl the way he does Federer by hitting high topspins to loop into Lendl's backhand. Most likely, he could force errors from Lendl and keep him from grooving the forehand, but at 6' 2", Lendl had the power to hit through the court, and with newer strings, might be able to overpower Nadal the way Robin Soderling did in 2009.

    All three of these players were fit, tough and vicious. They played every point as if it were their last.

    Slight Advantage to Nadal or Muster over Lendl

Semifinals: Bottom Half

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    Gustavo Kuerten vs. Bjorn Borg would be an epic showdown. Certainly, Borg was more consistent and greater overall, but Kuerten's mastery of clay included defeats of several clay-court specialists, with a deeper field than today's ATP clay draws.

    Which is better—Borg's double-backhand flip to generate topspin from small racket heads or Kuerten's lanky, graceful motion and superb control of his single backhand?

    Borg's concentration and fitness gives him a slight edge. His 1981 French Open victory over Ivan Lendl had his younger counterpart completely mopped in sweat and ready to collapse. Borg outlasted him. Could he do this to Kuerten as well?

    Slight edge to Borg

Championship Possibilities

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    Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg have the greatest clay-court legacies, but considering short peaks and talented matchups, there are several all-time possibilities.

    Which would be the best matchups to settle a single-elimination bracket?

    2008 Nadal vs. 2001 Kuerten would be a pleasing contrast of styles from two players born to play on clay and who best represent the most modern conditions.

    1980 Borg vs. 1986 Lendl could have almost happened sometime around 1984 had Borg continued his career and Lendl matured into a lethal champion beyond their meeting in 1981. We were robbed not to see this.

    1995 Muster vs. 2008 Nadal would be the most intense and high-adrenaline match of grunts and concentration. Both players would fight to the death for every point, and it would be blue-collar, hard-hitting machismo the entire match.

    1980 Borg vs. 2008 Nadal might be the match most tennis fans would choose. It would connect over 30 years of history, legacies, mystique, and perhaps, the two most well-rounded players to ever play on clay.

    What would be your dream matchup?