Breaking Down Roger Federer's Clay-Court Legacy

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

Switzerland's Roger Federer prepares to serve to France's Gael Monfils during a quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Wednesday June 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Lionel Cironneau

Roger Federer will not join the clay-court tour until Madrid, so the tennis spotlight will shine most on Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic when Monte Carlo gets underway. It's understandable that he has trimmed back his schedule the past few years, but it's regrettable for tennis fans who will miss his presence. Still, appreciation is in order for his clay-court accomplishments.

At times, sports fans have pegged Federer and clay as an inharmonious relationship. His results on the red dust frequently get mentioned with a breath of negativity. There are even critics and fans who somehow express his clay-court legacy as some kind of failure.

It's a minor Federer backlash, a perceived blemish in a near-perfect body of work; but the scrutiny is part of the price tag for greatness. Federer was so dominant on grass and hard courts that anything less on clay is a shadow of his larger achievements.

In contrast, an excellent clay-courter like David Ferrer, who has been a top five player for a few years, receives only moderate attention for wins and losses on clay. But does anyone really believe David Ferrer is a better clay-court player than Federer? The conversation is only relative to the elevation of each player's respective overall legacy.

Since Federer is on the Mount Rushmore of tennis, this matters a great deal to most tennis fans.


The Impact Of 2009

Tennis fans know the importance of Federer's French Open championship in June 2009. For Federer, the ebullience and relief were evident as he knelt on the clay. His muscle memory had carried him through the final game and the emotions and memories were bottled up forever. It's an historical tennis memory, enshrined with an everlasting fragrance of nostalgia.

It helped clarify Federer's standing as one of the greatest players of all time. Some media outlets even went a step further, immediately putting Federer ahead of Pete Sampras. (See the video clip below.)

It was undeniably his most important title. Suppose Federer had not won that championship? Despite the other 16 majors, would Federer still receive the majority vote for the mythical Greatest of all Time label?

Or would Federer conclusively trail Nadal in this debate?

Most importantly, Federer's success at Roland Garros was the capstone to an already astonishing clay-court legacy. It also validated the idea that many tennis fans had believed then and can rightfully say now: Had there been no Nadal, Federer would have won multiple French Open titles.


The Clay Hall Of Fame

Mention Open era clay-court champions and we think of Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and Gustavo Kuerten. They were proven, multiple winners at Roland Garros and became renowned most for their clay-court conquests.

Last year, we even ran a mock bracket with French Open champions, and predictably fans proclaimed Nadal the runaway winner. But it was more interesting to think about Federer's place amongst these champions. Given that cross-generational comparisons are best for barroom debates and maniacal tennis fans, it's most interesting to consider Federer's place in the conversation.

Where does he stack up next to the very best of the past several decades?

Could he not win his share of big matches versus the tireless Borg?

How about dueling the lively Vilas and his combinations of backhand slice, flat shots and moderate topspin? Borg and Vilas were warriors and irrepressible, but Federer's serve and imagination are something they never had to see (and for all of John McEnroe's fast surfaces genius, his groundstokes are not remotely comparable with Federer's).


Would Federer defeat the human backboard Wilander more often than not when clay was slower, technology lighter and social media far less suffocating?

How would it be to watch him exchange big forehands with fierce Lendl? Certainly Federer's athleticism gets the nod, but traveling back to 1986 is a whole new (or old) set of parameters. The visions of a player like Federer did not exist then.

How much trouble would Federer find from early 1990s stars like Bruguera or Muster with their obsessive devotion to clay?

Bruguera's nasty topspin and Muster's physical imposition could surely create problems for Federer, but they were never Nadal, and they only peaked for a few years. They would not create a sinister blend of southpaw topspin and an appetite for utter destruction. 1995 Muster might come closest, but that's it.

There's also the 2004 French Open loss in which the No. 1-ranked Federer was swept away by an injury-hampered Kuerten. Of course, it's also just one match and Federer was still coming into his own as the dominant champion he would be. Perhaps a coach, a dash of added experience and a few more matches with Kuerten would be more revealing, but we don't get that extra evidence.

So, consider Federer's legacy without any of his hard-courts wins and Wimbledon titles. Would he be in the Tennis Hall of Fame with the following championship line?

  • 2009 French Open champion
  • Four runner-up trophies at Roland Garros
  • 10 career clay-court titles (appearing in 33 finals)
  • Six Masters 1000 titles (Hamburg 2002, 04-05, 07; Madrid 2009, 12)
  • 76.6 winning percentage on clay, and 80 percent at Roland Garros

For a contemporary comparison, Djokovic still trails the titles and is virtually identical with the winning percentage on clay.

Ferrer's winning percentage on clay barely tops 71 percent, and all of his 11 titles are mid-level tournaments earned through 124 extra matches on clay. Comparing Ferrer to Federer is a loss for the Spaniard in just about every conceivable way, especially the 0-5 head-to-head record with matches at Madrid, Monte Carlo and Hamburg.

It's fair to say that Federer must rate ahead of other one-time Roland Garros winners and worthy clay-court specialists like Borg-conqueror Adriano Panatta or late-90s dirt kickers Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Gaston Gaudio.

The worst that any tennis fan can say about Federer's clay-court legacy is that he is still on the cusp of being one of the top 10 players of the Open era and the second-best clay-court champion of his generation.


Taking On The Clay-Court World

Suppose Federer chased after mid-level clay-court tournaments like Ferrer or Muster (from 1995-96, Muster compiled an astonishing 111-5 clay-court record in 1995-96 including 18 of his 40 career clay titles). Is it not reasonable to suppose that Federer would be an even greater player on clay had he chosen to prioritize this most?


Certainly Nadal would make this a more discouraging endeavor, but it must be remembered that Federer was tacking on his clay-court accomplishments while winning and defending just about every other important tournament on hard courts and grass during his prime years. With Federer, the surface was not as important as winning wherever he could. Nobody won more and spent more time at No. 1.

To say that Federer should have been a better clay-court player is like suggesting that Leonardo da Vinci should have been a better painter. The genius and artistry of da Vinci transcends art, and thankfully so. We wouldn't ask him to paint more if he had to sacrifice his inventions, drawings, engineering and other talents.

There will also be the memories of Federer's artistry on clay, of each and every time he competed in a big match. He always brought a presence, a flair and charisma not so different than Kuerten, and likewise many beautifully struck shots from graceful footwork.

On clay, he may have been the rarest of all champions in that he could play his all-courts game with a unique magnificence and win impressively. He was a colorful, exotic bird swooping into a foreign land for the pleasure of those who will not see his likeness again.

Who knows, there could be a couple more clay-court memories still to be created when the calendar's current page is torn off. Federer and clay-court tennis are a wonderful blend.


    Rafael Nadal wins record Monte Carlo Masters to keep stunning clay run alive

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    Rafael Nadal wins record Monte Carlo Masters to keep stunning clay run alive

    Press Association
    via the Guardian

    Fed Cup highlights: Heather Watson & Johanna Konta beaten in thrilling doubles decider

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    Fed Cup highlights: Heather Watson & Johanna Konta beaten in thrilling doubles decider

    BBC Sport
    via BBC Sport

    Monte Carlo Masters: Rafael Nadal stays world number one with final win over Kei Nishikori

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    Monte Carlo Masters: Rafael Nadal stays world number one with final win over Kei Nishikori

    BBC Sport
    via BBC Sport

    Rafael Beats Nishikori to Win Monte Carlo Masters

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    Rafael Beats Nishikori to Win Monte Carlo Masters

    Matt Jones
    via Bleacher Report