Evolution of the Game
If such a thing as a born clay court player exists, then both Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal would fit the bill. Nadal is thus far 28-0 at Roland Garros, having won all four times that he’s played there. Borg won the second year he played in Paris, then the third, and then his last four.
Tremendously potent groundstrokes, great speed, limitless stamina, and mental fortitude are all required to win the RG, and both men seem to have these qualities as birthrights. But neither was satisfied with this inheritance.
Nadal sought to hit his mighty forehand in more of a forward direction, to achieve more court penetration. Though his serve remains a weaker part of his game, he has acquired some of the greatest placement and variety of anyone in the men’s top 10.
Borg beefed up his serve, making it capable of reaching the 120-mph range (a greater feat in the days of wood rackets). Though least comfortable at net, he charged it daringly, adding new dimensions to his grinding game.
Both men’s improvements were designed to net majors for them off of clay. In both cases, they became more dominant clay court players as a result: Borg surrendered only 32 games while winning the RG in 1978; Nadal only 39 last year.
So why do I do I consider Borg’s development more significant? Because the Swede changed tennis; every male baseliner who wins with endurance, with topspin, and with a two-handed backhand has their roots in the man from Stockholm (though the latter can also credit Jimmy Connors). Through his growth as a player, he showed that such attributes could lead to victories on all surfaces.
In short, were there no Borg, there’d be no Rafa.
New racket technology has made it possible to both serve and hit groundstrokes with more pace and more accuracy. That said, it must be remembered that older wooden rackets did not favor baseliners. Watch an old clip of Borg’s clay court matches in the late ‘70s: The first thing you will probably notice is how slowly the ball seems to be travelling when compared to today’s baseline duels.
The second thing you ought to notice is that Borg practically never misses, despite the amount of spin he’s hitting, and despite the amount of force his opponent is throwing his way. And he was doing this with an old wooden racket.
The amount of space on his old Donnay barely exceeds the size of the sweet spot on some of today’s Heads, Wilsons, and Yonexes, and yet he almost never missed. That, along with his speed and his endurance, made it impossible for other (very good) baseliners like Guillermo Vilas to beat him.
Then, later improvements to his serve and volleys made it possible for him to fend off new challenges, like the skillful serve-and-volley approach of Victor Pecci in 1979, and helped him outlast the Terminator himself, Ivan Lendl, in 1981.
Nadal seems to have perfected the clay court grind, but it was Borg who invented it.
Mental and Physical
John McEnroe, Borg’s greatest rival, was also his biggest booster, calling him a “Viking god” for his size, speed and power. At one point, it was inaccurately reported that he had a resting heart rate of 35 beats per minute; this was a myth made believable by the seemingly endless points that he used to grind down opponents.
If in strength, speed, and endurance he was Nadal’s forerunner, in personality they were opposites. Borg was known for his unflappability on court, and his distinct lack of emotion, even in the most tense of situations. Nadal’s fist pumping, flexing, and shouts of “Vamos!” represent the opposite sort of positive reinforcement, but both men have used their personalities to the maximum benefit.
Competition and Accomplishments
In 1977, Guillermo Vilas set a record with 53 clay court matches won in a row (a mark topped by Nadal in 2006). He won both at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, the latter of which was played on clay that year.
As Borg hadn’t played the RG in ’77, their final encounter in Paris in ’78 was accompanied with high expectation—and it failed to meet them. Borg crushed Vilas, surrendering only five games. Though the Argentine’s left-handed, heavy-spinning groundstrokes are oft-compared to a certain muscular Spaniard today, he could not break down the Iceborg.
Are Borg’s two finals wins (the first coming in 1975) over Vilas more significant than Nadal’s four victories over Roger Federer, an all-time great who has never won on clay? It’s debatable. We may never know how many would-be greats of clay have not been allowed their day of glory because of Nadal’s dominance.
What we do know is that there was another great dirtballer in Borg’s day, and the Swede destroyed him.
Another thing that we know for sure is how the competition of both the Swede and the Spaniard have regarded their clay court achievements: They are a source of awe, and a mystery unsolved.
Kevin Kim, whom Nadal defeated in 2006, described playing the Spaniard as similar to being in a desert that never ends. Terry Moore, who barely avoided a triple-bagel from the Swede in 1981, said, “I don’t know how (his other opponents) win games.”
Head to Head
The trickiest part of any inter-generational comparison is imagining how they would match-up under equal conditions. Here, I put emphasis on the word “equal” because I’m not sure such a situation is possible.
With modern racket technology, I believe that Nadal would defeat Borg on clay. While serving, volleying, and speed are not insignificant at today’s Roland Garros, groundstrokes may have more importance than all other things combined. As Nadal’s forehand is a greater weapon than any Borg possessed, it’s hard to imagine the Spaniard losing to the Swede while it’s in full flight.
Give both men wood, and the situation is very different: In this case, Borg’s superior serving and slightly more bankable backhand would likely neutralize the advantage that Nadal’s forehand presented.
Even if you acknowledge that Nadal is better on clay, at least under today’s conditions, does that automatically make him greater?
There’s a subtle but critical difference in the terms: Today’s Ferrari’s are certainly better than Ford’s Model-Ts, but the latter revolutionized transport. Albert Einstein almost certainly had more scientific facts at his command than Isaac Newton, but does that automatically make him more influential?
Someday, should Nadal break Borg’s record of six Roland Garros wins, and should his style of play spawn a wave of future champions, he can contend for the title of greatest clay court player ever.
For now, though, the Swede has two more majors on the surface, and countless younger players, from Wilander to Agassi to Hewitt, bear signs of his influence.
I’m not saying it’s outside of Nadal’s ability to supplant Borg; all I’m saying is that he hasn’t done it yet.