The 10 Greatest Clay Court Players of the Open Era
No one can know how this year’s Roland Garros will turn out; what we do know is that Rafael Nadal will be going for his fifth RG title, with a win placing him only one shy of Bjorn Borg's total.
Another thing we know is that the RG is a two-week test of endurance and is widely considered the toughest major to win in terms of mental and physical fortitude.
Many of the game’s all-time greats, from Jimmy Connors to John McEnroe to Pete Sampras, fell short there, while those with thinner résumés have prospered.
But while many RG champions have traits that are unique to the clay, you’ll soon see that the best clay court players have known considerable crossover success.
Therefore, being a truly great clay court player means being a great player anywhere.
Here we will examine the 10 men and women of the modern era who have known the most success on the surface, find out what made them great, and in the process learn where Nadal ranks in terms of clay court history.
And our list starts with...
10. Monica Seles: Intensity
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1990-92; RG finalist 1998; 14 clay court titles.
Seles won her first Roland Garros in 1990 at age 16, and then defended her title in 1991, a year in which she won all three majors she played in.
At the time, it appeared that her bludgeoning two-handed groundstrokes and her unshakable focus would one day demolish all the standards that came before her.
But her shocking stabbing in 1993 kept her away from the Roland Garros title, where she was three-time defending champion, and left physical and mental wounds she wouldn't recover from for more than two years.
When she returned to the game, two of her best seasons were gone forever, and the intensity that made her great did not come back with her.
So impressive were her early results, however, that the time she lost doesn't keep her off this list.
9. Mats Wilander: Adaptation
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1982, 1985, 1988; RG finalist 1983, 1987; 19 clay court titles.
Wilander's patience, consistency, and speed made him a natural for the dirt, as he won his first RG at age 17 in 1982.
The Swede didn't rely on talent alone, though, as he made continued efforts to improve his serve and volleys. By 1988, all his effort paid off, helping him win three of the year's four majors and post a thoroughly dominant RG victory.
In that year's final, Wilander missed all of one first serve against French native son Henri Leconte and lost only eight games.
He was finished winning majors by the time he was 24, but there seems little doubt that by then he'd gotten all the mileage out of his talent that he could have.
8. Arantxa Sánchez Vicario: Heart
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1989, 1994, 1998; RG runner-up 1991, 1995-1996; 18 clay court titles.
If talent were everything, Sánchez Vicario might rank at the base of this list. If scrappiness were everything, she'd be awfully close to the summit.
She was, in the words of Bud Collins, "unceasing in determined pursuit of tennis balls, none seeming too distant to be retrieved in some manner and returned again and again to demoralize opponents."
Though much less powerful than Steffi Graf or Monica Seles, she beat the former to win her first RG in 1989 (at age 17) and the latter to win her final major in '98 (in a three-set final where she actually won fewer games AND points than Seles).
Though this tendency also netted her a US Open title in '94, six major doubles titles, and five Fed Cup wins for Spain, her best-known achievements were in singles in Paris, where the slow clay helped reward her doggedness most.
7. Ivan Lendl: Determination
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1984, 1986-1987; RG runner-up 1981, 1985; 28 clay court titles.
By the middle of the '80s, Lendl was methodically breaking down opponents with his huge forehand and seemingly endless stamina. It seems prudent, therefore, to remember how hard he had to work to get to that point.
He lost the first three majors he played in, including a five-set final against Borg at the '81 RG, and his breakthrough came after falling behind two sets to none against John McEnroe in the '84 final.
Not long after battling back to win that match, he took over the game, adding two more RG titles, spending 270 weeks at No. 1, and, perhaps most importantly, forever changing notions of what a forehand could do.
His hours of strength and cardiovascular training contributed to his image as a "machine," but such fitness is a prerequisite in today's game, nowhere more so than on clay.
6. Margaret Court: Versatility
Key Stats: French championships winner, 1962, 1964 (as an amateur); Roland Garros champion 1969, 1970, 1973 (as a professional).
Court was not a great clay court player; she was a great player, full stop, winning 24 major titles, 11 of them after the Open Era. The fact that she won in Australia 11 times indicates that the dirt was not her favorite surface, but rather that her five wins in Paris were the product of her overall greatness.
After the Open Era began and the competition grew keener, however, it would appear that her affinity for the clay grew, as three of her five French titles came as a pro.
She ended her career with 24 major victories, making her the most decorated competitor in men's or women's tennis history. Therefore, while love for clay helps, overall greatness as a tennis player can go a long way in mastering the dirt.
Please note that for this list, her two French wins as an amateur break the tie between her and the others who won three RG titles professionally, but place her no higher.
The above photo belongs to BBC News.
5. Justine Henin: Efficiency
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 2003, 2005-07; 12 clay court titles.
Justine Henin's results not only made her the first Belgian to win a major; for a time they seemed to transcend gender. John McEnroe called her backhand the best one-hander on either the WTA or ATP tours, and Billie Jean King called her "pound for pound...the best tennis player of her generation."
She stood only 5'5", 130 pounds, but the Belgian didn't waste an inch or ounce, using her phenomenal racket-head speed to serve in the 120 mph range and overpower women taller and heavier than herself.
Just as she maximized the use of her physique, she was determined to make the most of the opportunities given her. This was best revealed in her 4-for-4 record in Roland Garros finals, each of which she won without dropping a set.
Then, when her desire waned in 2008, she left tennis at age 25, rather than step on court with anything less than her all.
4. Rafael Nadal: Maturity
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion, 2005-08; 25 clay court titles; 81-match win streak on clay from 2005-07.
The things we noticed about Nadal when he won his maiden slam were almost all physical.
There was the tremendous amount of terrain he was capable of covering.
Then there was the animated style of celebration, punctuating each passing shot winner with an uppercut to the chin of an invisible opponent, adding a knee-jump if he hit it to save a break point.
And of course, there was the incredible action he got on his forehand, aided by the arms that were large for a tennis pro in 2005 and have seemingly gotten bigger with each year.
It's safe to say that almost no other player has emerged so physically mature at such a tender age; the closest that comes to mind is Boris Becker, whose tree trunk-sized legs gave him the foundation needed to power to a Wimbledon title at age 17.
But mentally Nadal also seems more fully developed than his peers, and this has been evident ever since he stared down world No. 1 Roger Federer in the 2005 RG semis.
It's been clear in the way he overcame the pressure to defend his title the next year, the way he's ratcheted up his play at every RG since, and in all the phenomenal five-set matches he's won over the past four years.
Just shy of his 23rd birthday, the maturity he seems born with has propelled him to a 28-0 record on Paris clay and into the upper half of the top 10 clay courters of all time.
He's got some work to do before he can climb any higher, but to bet against him would be, well, immature.
3. Steffi Graf: Professionalism
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1987-88, 1993, 1995-96, 1999; RG finalist 1989-90, 1992; 32 clay court titles.
In order to succeed as a professional, one must discover their tennis talent at a young age. Sadly, all too many young talents use the discovery of such gifts as an excuse to never grow up.
Graf, however, seemed to realize from childhood that pounding a forehand harder than any other woman wasn't just her gift; it was her job.
A little younger than 18, she used her dominant wing to win her first RG, thus commanding the respect of older greats like Martina Navratilova. Soon she was at the top of her line of work, regularly beating back those of similar age who weren't as dedicated to their profession, or just weren't as good at it.
Twelve years after her first win and nearing an elderly state among tennis pros, her weapons were still sharp and sense of professionalism still acute enough to snatch one more RG, her last major title, from a young champion named Martina Hingis.
It was her sixth title in Paris, amounting to a little more than a fourth of her 22 majors.
To win even one RG requires great talent (think Iva Majoli) or great commitment (think Thomas Muster). To win six over a 12-year period, against three generations of players, requires a considerable amount of both.
Roland Garros history, and tennis history in general, are richer for that talent having been in the hands of a professional like Steffi Graf.
2. Bjorn Borg: Cool
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1974-75, 1978-81; retired with a 28-match win streak at Roland Garros; 28 clay court titles.
Like Graf, Borg won the last RG he ever played at, and six overall. Unlike her, he also won the RGs from the three previous years.
Furthermore, while her final major title showed how committed she was to overcoming obstacles such as age and injury, Borg's victories proved him to be the obstacle, and one no other man could overcome.
From the start of the French championships to the last point of the final, Borg cranked his heavy groundstrokes and ran down his opponents' shots; never tiring, never seeming to err, and never betraying frustration.
Much like Wilander and Nadal would later, he improved his serve and volleys to excel on other surfaces, but against fellow (but lesser) baseliners on clay, this was merely window dressing.
Some players couldn't even win games against the Ice Borg in Paris. An elite few could win sets, but his last 28 opponents at Roland Garros failed to beat him, or apparently to tire him in the slightest.
Perhaps this helps explain why he left the game so young; at age 26 he'd finally failed in the challenge of holding onto the Wimbledon crown, and the championship in New York he so coveted continued to frustrate him.
Meanwhile, his closest challenger in Paris was a young Lendl, who'd pushed him to five sets but lost the last 6-1. Perhaps seeing nothing new on his horizon, the Swede walked away at an age when most tennis pros are peaking.
If his number of RG victories is eventually surpassed by Nadal, he'll be as much to blame as the Spaniard.
1. Chris Evert: All of the Above
Key Stats: Roland Garros champion 1974-75, 1979-80, 1983, 1985-86; US Open (on clay) champion 1975-77; RG runner-up 1973, 1984; 125-match clay court win streak from 1973-79.
If Nadal wins this year's RG and the next, he can perhaps be said to have overtaken both Borg and Graf on this list; like them, he'll have six RG titles, but his will have come in sequence and with no losses in between.
His odds of overtaking Evert as the greatest of either gender, however, remain long.
An analogy: In 1983 Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys ran for a 99-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. Not only is this the longest run possible for an NFL running back, but it was even more special for the fact that the Cowboys had mistakenly fielded only 10 men for that play, rather than the usual 11.
As Dorsett's run took place in conditions unlikely to be duplicated, his record will probably stand for all of football history.
Likewise, Evert's domination of the clay court surface is unlikely to be surpassed because the conditions won't allow it; she had the advantage of playing when the US Open was also on clay.
Therefore, while Nadal's current record of four majors on the surface is auspicious, he still has less than half as many as Miss Chrissie.
Even without the US Open's factoring into the equation, Evert would still hold a death grip on the status of best clay-courter ever. Nadal's 81-match win streak on clay is far and away the greatest among men, but an entire third shorter than the 125-match streak Evert amassed in the '70s.
Her trendsetting double-fisted backhand and power baseline game set the blueprint for players like Seles and Sanchez-Vicario, and her cool demeanor in tense matches lead to her being nicknamed "Ice Maiden."
Oh, and by the way, her seven RG titles came despite not playing there from 1976-78. Oh, and after her 125-match streak was broken, she promptly went on a 72-match streak on clay that lasted until 1981.
Rafa, there'd be no shame in finishing second on this list.
Only just missing out on this list were a number of very good male players, including three-time champ Gustavo Kuerten (pictured) and 1977 RG and USO winner Guillermo Vilas, plus two-time RG champs Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera, and Jan Kodes.
On the women's side, the only multi-time French champion of the Open Era not on this list is Martina Navratilova, who won two RGs in the 1980s.