Is Rafael Nadal the Best Player on Clay Ever?

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst IApril 23, 2009

It's that wonderful time of year again, where all the world's finest tennis players dash from the pavement to the sandboxes in an instant case of age regression. Who doesn't like sliding around aimlessly in the clay, nearly doing donuts while returning major topspin forehands?

Sadly, not everyone does. It is a very divided surface—some players count down the days until the clay season, while others have a big black "X" on the calendar through the opening day on sand.

One thing is for certain: South Americans, Spaniards, and senior citizens all have an innate aptitude on clay courts.

Just ask the Sheriff himself.

Rafael Nadal may be evolving into a master of all surfaces, but his pride and passion oozes from the Coupe des Mousquetaires. For the young Spaniard, there is no place like home.

He matched the great Bjorn Borg last year with four consecutive Roland Garros crowns, but he still remains two shy of Borg's career mark. If you want to get technical with me about how he becomes the best ever, he needs to double his score to match French pioneer Max Decugis, who won the tournament eight times from 1903-1914.

But who's counting?

The ever-classy Nadal just loves to play. He's like a six-year-old kid bounding with energy. Just hand him a racquet and he will be on the court for countless hours a day.

Do you think he knows about his 22-match winning streak on clay? He doesn't.

"No, no. Well, I had very good results on clay last few years, so that gives me a little more confidence," Nadal said. "But every match is different, no? I am only thinking about the match, not if I won 100 matches, no?"

He is still going to prepare for Roland Garros like he's never won the event in his life. But that leads to the million-dollar question: Is he the best clay court player ever?

Maybe he is. We have to look at his main competition first.


Obviously we must start with a man by the name of Borg. Rafael has tied his French Open record for consecutive wins and is only eight behind Borg in clay court tournament victories.

Next comes the other Bull, the Young Bull of the Pampas, also known as Guillermo Vilas. He only captured Le Coupe des Mousquetaires once, in 1977. But elsewhere he was spectacular, holding the ATP record for most clay court titles won in a career with 46.

The most recent clay court force is Thomas Muster. The Musterminator only won the French Open once, but he too was dominant elsewhere, winning 40 clay court titles in his illustrious 15-year career.

Bringing up the rear is the man who shows up on lists for everything, Ivan "The Terrible" Lendl. Lendl was a force at Roland Garros for nearly 10 years, winning the event three times and losing in the finals twice.

Match No. 1: Nadal vs. Thomas Muster

Let's start with a few stats. Muster has a 422-126 career record on clay, a winning percentage of 77 percent. He was 40-5 in finals matches on clay.

Nadal is currently 164-14 on clay, a ridiculous winning percentage of 92 percent. He is 23-1 in clay court finals.

Muster played largely in an era of mostly above-average clay court players in history, including Sergi Bruguera, Albert Costa, and Marcelo Rios. He had the best two-year span on clay of any player in history, going 111-5 on clay between 1995-96.

However, he only managed to capture the French Open crown once. Throughout the '90s, eight different players won the crown.

Muster and Nadal are very similar. Both are left-handers who utilize topspin forehands, have superior physical fitness, and push themselves to ridiculous heights in training and preparation.

For all their similarities, Nadal does just about every one of them better.

Verdict: Nadal in a decisive three.

Match No. 2: Nadal vs. Ivan Lendl

Lendl, a career 81 percent winner on clay, 329-75, was arguably not even at his best on clay, but had extremely good results anyway. Still, he was 28-9 in finals on clay. That might just have something to do with who he was playing against.

Many of his nine losses on clay came to players like Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, and Bjorn Borg.

Not bad players to lose to.

He also literally did the impossible, beating McEnroe in 1984 for the French Open crown. Throw in very high caliber clay court players as well like Andres Gomez, Eddie Dibbs, and Jose-Luis Clerc. He played with an excellent group.

After taking down McEnroe in the French Open, he went on to win two more titles in the next three years.

Lendl, like Nadal, also utilized topspin forehands, but not to the extent that the Raging Bull does. Lendl played with a bit more power than Rafa instead. Their main difference, though, was consistency.

Both very good at covering court, Lendl had a powerful serve that was incredible while it was on, but produced a lot of errors while it was not. Instead of using a powerful ground game, Nadal likes to stay on the defensive and use angles to his advantage.

Nadal, who is currently five clay titles behind Lendl for his career, has got to the number in far less time. It is unlikely that Nadal will match him this year, but next year it is almost a foregone conclusion.

Nadal has also been playing alongside upstanding competition like Roger Federer, Fernando Verdasco, and Nikolay Davydenko.     

Verdict: Nadal in an energizing four.


Match No. 3: Nadal vs. Guillermo Vilas

To say that Vilas played a lot on clay would be a vast understatement. In 794 career matches on clay, Vilas carries a nice 80 percent winning mark.

He also subsequently holds the ATP record for most career clay titles, 46. He did lose his fair share though, and he was not incredibly effective on the biggest of stages either.

He won two Slams on clay, the French Open and the US Open in 1977. But he was foiled by Borg twice, then Wilander another time.

Unlike Nadal, Vilas would plan his schedule around the clay. Wherever a clay court tournament was held, you could guarantee Vilas would be there. He didn't care where it was or how big the event.

Vilas was also a left-handed player who utilized topspin.

Nadal has won more titles faster than Vilas, however. Vilas didn't break through until the ninth year of his career, while Nadal burst onto the stage with eight clay court wins in his seventh year.

Verdict: Nadal in a challenging five.


Match No. 4: Nadal vs. Bjorn Borg

Borg is essentially a gold standard measuring tool for any modern player's success. He was a constant professional that made his game work on any surface. But it's no secret he loved the clay.

He carried an 86 percent winning mark for his career, 245-39, and won 30 titles. His four consecutive French Open titles were only recently matched by Nadal. His six career crowns at Roland Garros are still an ATP record, for now.

Still not as prolific of a winning percentage as Rafael, but Rafael has not finished with his career yet. 

The right-hander from Sodertalje was one of the first to use a two-handed backhand on tour, much like the Raging Bull uses today. Apart from the differences in handedness, their similarities are eerie.

  • Both are athletic baseliners with great backhands.
  • Both use a considerable amount of topspin as a primary weapon. 
  • Both commit a very slim number of errors.
  • Both can outlast anybody on tour in a five-set match.
  • Both are cool, collected, and soft-spoken both on and off the court.
  • Both have a very underrated, yet extraordinarily effective serve.

And so far, they have both adapted their game to the grasses of Wimbledon. Well, Borg did anyway. It is still to be seen if Nadal can have the kind of success that Borg did. 

Borg beat some terrific players for the French title: Manuel Orantes, Vilas, Ilie Nastase, and Lendl. Nadal has mainly abused Federer at Roland Garros. He also beat Mariano Puerta in 2005, who had never advanced past the second round of any Slam previous to that.

Verdict: Toss-up.


Nadal can make history next month at the French Open if he wins his fifth straight title. Ridiculous. 


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