The 10 Most Dominant Men's Performances in French Open History

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2014

The 10 Most Dominant Men's Performances in French Open History

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    LAURENT BAHEUX/Associated Press

    Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg are the French Open standards of the Open era. But how dominant were they in their very best years? Which other French Open champions crushed their contemporaries and sealed their place as one of the top-10 performances?

    We are defining each performance as a complete Roland Garros fortnight, seven matches. There have been 46 years of professional competition at Roland Garros and noticeable differences if we closely examine each decade.

    In the 1970s, some of the early rounds only played best of three to determine a winner. There were more one-sided matches during this time, which indicates that the draws were not as deep.

    The 1980s featured three titles apiece from Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, but it often required more sets and games to finish off the title. Competition was increasing.

    The 1990s had the most parity. Many clay-court champions filled the draws and it was difficult to smash through so many styles of great competitors. A few notable champions, who were cut from out list, should be acknowledged:

    • 1990 Andres Gomez dropped only two sets and defeated semifinalist Thomas Muster and finalist Andre Agassi.
    • 1994 Sergi Bruguera dropped only two sets as he completed back-to-back championships at Roland Garros.
    • 1995 Thomas Muster was sweeping every tournament in the midst of one of the great clay-court  seasons in history. Though he destroyed finalist Michael Chang, he needed four sets in the opener and five sets to hold off quarterfinalist (and future 2002 French Open champion) Albert Costa.
    • 1996 Yevgeny Kafelnikov only dropped one tiebreaker set, but he lost 76 games, which counts a lot when we split hairs at the top. His most notable victory was defeating Pete Sampras in the semifinals, denying the American greater historical acclaim.
    • Gustavo Kuerten won three French Open titles (1997, 2001-01) but his best run (2001) needed a five-setter and he dropped five total sets.

    The 2000s started out with Kuerten but then turned into Nadal's historical dominance. 

    Only the most dominant performances crack the top 10, and they have set a standard that will take special results to join the list. Will someone in 2014 make a bid?

10. Rafael Nadal 2012

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    It was the record-breaking seventh French Open title for the all-time king of clay. And nearly every step of the way was dominant. His first six matches saw him drop only 35 games, including a double bagel over Juan Monaco in the fourth round and a humiliating 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 thrashing of semifinalist David Ferrer.

    But the final will always be memorable for its rain-drenched conditions, a third-set roll by Novak Djokovic and the cessation of play until Monday. Then, Nadal regrouped for a four-set win in arguably his most difficult final match at Roland Garros. He also denied Djokovic his chance to hold the Djoker-Slam, all four major titles at once.

    For a long-running Retro Diary of the match, you can examine the commentary.

    In the end, Nadal was good enough to crack the top 10 by punishing weaker competition for most matches. He lost 18 games to Djokovic and the bizarre final resonated with a few "what if" scenarios. But only losing one set and 53 games is an awesome feat.

9. Jim Courier 1992

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    Jim Courier made up for any natural clay-court talent with dogged determination. He ran miles after matches and prepared to win grinding matches with his big inside-out forehand. He never saw a backhand he did not want to run around.

    In 1992, Courier was at his absolute peak, and he was the last man to win the Australian and French Opens in the same year. He ripped through Roland Garros, dropping only one quarterfinals set to Goran Ivanisevic. He lost a trim 63 games over the course of seven matches.

    Along the way, Courier thumped Thomas Muster in the second round and 17-year-old Andrei Medvedev in the fourth round. He peaked with straight-sets wins over Andre Agassi and Petr Korda to close out his second consecutive French Open title.

    Very little drama, but Courier's mentality to hit as hard as he could from the baseline was another step in the evolution of baseline bashing.

8. Rafael Nadal 2007

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    LIONEL CIRONNEAU/Associated Press

    Seven years is a very significant time in tennis. It's extremely difficult to keep playing championship tennis longer than this span. It can often be the rise, peak and aftermath of a good career. Never mind that Jimmy Connors was still creating noise at age 39. His actual greatness was 1974-1983. Even superstars like Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe had all their successes in less than a decade. Others like Jim Courier and Lleyton Hewitt only had a couple of great years.

    It also shows the impressive longevity of today's current superstars. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi actually had longer stretches of greatness than Connors. And now Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are showing even more tireless resolve. Why?

    Part of the answer is their adaptability. Look back at 2007 Rafael Nadal's dominance at the French Open and compare him to his 2013 version. Then, Nadal was more wiry, quicker, a better retriever and consumed with a hunger to get to the top. Now, he has the pressures of extending his legacy. He has to face more varied attacks. He has had to become more offensively creative.

    Would you take the 2007 Nadal or 2013 Nadal? It really depends on your angle. Maybe 2013 Nadal was better, but 2007 Nadal was more dominant at the French Open. 

    Although Roger Federer had snapped Rafael Nadal's 81-match clay-court winning streak at Hamburg in 2007, it would prove to be an entirely different ordeal at Roland Garros' slower clay and best-of-five-sets format.

    Nadal dropped 67 games, but only one set (Federer in the final), and he vanquished an impressive array of victims. Five different opponents would win at least one Grand Slam title in his career: Juan Martin del Potro, Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya, Novak Djokovic and Federer.

    By this time, it was also apparent that rival Federer's quest to win the French Open title at Nadal's expense had become the most difficult task in all of sports. Federer was conquering his third career three-majors season, but the Spaniard defended his French clay as if it were the last territory on Earth.

    It might be that 2007 Nadal could focus more on his rising career. He still had a mountain to climb, and it shaped his drive. Even picking between different Nadals is becoming apples and oranges.

7. Ivan Lendl 1986

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    Pierre Gleizes/Associated Press

    After the fall of John McEnroe, official by 1985, the age of Ivan Lendl ruled the rest of the decade. Not that everyone was happy about this. Sports Illustrated even ran a feature article in 1986 that bemoaned how robotic and boring Lendl seemed to be. The cover screamed out its message in blocky, bold letters, "The Champion That Nobody Cares About." Below this, in much smaller letters it said simply, "Ivan Lendl wins the U.S. Open.

    Of course people are less likely to recall that Lendl won the French Open in 1986 during one of the great tennis seasons of all time. They are more likely to remember that he lost the Wimbledon final to Boom Boom Boris Becker. Lendl was even robbed of getting to play at the Australian Open, which was not staged that year.

    Perhaps Lendl was stuck in the wrong era. His fitness and powerful forehand were great enough to win majors on clay and hard courts then, a rare achievement.

    In the 1986 French Open, Lendl lost only one set and 55 games. If this happened now, it would be lionized on social media and recognized in 1000 different forms.

    Looks like Lendl will have to be remembered by younger generations as the coach who helped Andy Murray win Wimbledon. At lest tennis fans know better.

6. Guillermo Vilas 1977

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    In 1977, Guillermo Vilas packaged one of the great clay-court years of all time. He won 16 titles and 130 matches, including his record 53-match clay-court streak. He won the French Open on red clay and the U.S. Open on faster green clay.

    Vilas murdered everyone at the French Open, losing only 43 games and no sets. He dealt out six bagels and four breadsticks. (Slightly important note: Bjorn Borg was not in the 1977 draw.)

    And Vilas is very proud of those marks, to the point that he took a few shots at Rafael Nadal's clay-court streak that surpassed Vilas in 2006. Right after his streak was broken, Vilas said, according to The Telegraph, "First of all, Nadal's performance is spanning over two years, which is not the same. Then, I have the feeling he added easy tournaments on his schedule just for that purpose."

    Vilas is not the only sports legend to make ungracious comments, but why? Is it jealousy? Is it his way of seeking attention or not being forgotten? All it did was sully his own reputation.

    Some of the more recent tennis legends like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi do the opposite, overly praising the current stars and their greatness. They have been trained to be more media-savvy, and perhaps they have realized this is also another way to draw attention to their own careers.

    But that's OK too. We will remember Vilas, Sampras and the rest for their tennis achievements, but it is nice when they celebrate their sport being passed down to future generations.

5. Rafael Nadal 2010

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    Redemption was the driving force behind Rafael Nadal's tornado-like sweep through the 2010 French Open. It was the second time he did not drop a set in the French Open, though he did lose 71 games, much more than the four performances listed above this run.

    It was particularly important for Nadal to dispatch Robin Soderling in straight sets. A year previous, Soderling became the only man to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, a distinction that still stands at this publication. The rest of the draw that he faced was fairly weak compared to other years, but Nadal handled his schedule with very little dispute as to who was the best.

    It also snapped his longest major drought and paved the way for three straight majors on three different surfaces. The Spaniard's 2010 season would prove to be his greatest.

    So is it easiest to be dominant when a player is climbing to the top (2008), or is getting back to the top (2010, 2013) a more powerful motivator?

    Nadal is always an interesting and unique case study. We'll have to examine this question more in the future.

4. Ilie Nastase 1973

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    Associated Press

    Four decades have passed since Ilie Nastase crushed the 1973 French Open field. This was the dawn of the Open era when distinguished Australian champions were long in the tooth.

    It's hard to feel what kind of dominance Nastase may have had with his wooden racket and creative tennis. Nastase did not overpower his opponents, but he possessed a lot of guile, intelligence and variety. He could lob, drop, cover the net and grind away. By all accounts, Nastase was very good with many skills, a Swiss Army knife, but he did not have the huge weapons that other great legends possessed.

    He was a true character, entertaining, volatile and never shy about screaming or creating controversy. He must have been a fascinating figure to a coming-of-age John McEnroe.

    The numbers at Roland Garros are impressive. He swept every match and only dropped 49 games. (It should also be noted that the first and second rounds were best of three matches.)

    Why didn't Nastase and his No. 1 ranking continue to win more Grand Slam titles? His early years and pre-Open era accomplishments were spent touring and playing exhibitions with friend and compatriot Ion Tiriac. He balanced this with his tennis, but only became serious for the tour when the professional era took off. By 1973, he had already hit his peak at age 27. Then along came Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg and his time at the top was suddenly passed.

3. Bjorn Borg 1980

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Ilie Nastase was impressed with Bjorn Borg's deadpan demeanor on and off the court, as profiled in Tim Pears' masterful depiction of Borg: "I used to call him the Martian, because whenever he came off court, if you were in the locker room, you could never tell whether he'd won or lost."

    Forget about the tennis-skills comparisons between Borg and Rafael Nadal. How would their personalities and competitiveness stack up against each other with a French Open final on the line?

    Would the icy, cool Borg bother Nadal with his way of tuning out his rituals? Besides, Borg had his own rituals, picking at his racket strings, feeling his necklace and in general tuning out his opponents.

    Would Nadal's fiery bursts unnerve Borg? So much of Nadal's late-match heroics is forcing his opponents to crack under pressure. Whose will and drive is best for outlasting the other? Would they play each other to force mistakes?

    One thing is for sure, Borg's 1980 French Open title was far easier than his epic Wimbledon defense versus John McEnroe. Borg cruised easily, losing only 38 games and no sets.

    The next player to win any Grand Slam title without dropping a set would be Roger Federer at the 2007 Australian Open.

2. Rafael Nadal 2008

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    Modern tennis fans would be justified in placing Nadal's 2008 season at the very top of the list for the most dominating French Open run of all time. He is a modern athlete playing against deeper fields. His accumulative clay-court achievements have been witnessed by a global media. There is no denying his clay-court dominance.

    In 2008, Nadal famously capped off his seven sweeps by trampling World No. 1 Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. He lost only 41 games while dealing out three bagels and nine breadsticks. His celebration was so muted it did more to underscore his dominance.

    He had also swept Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and destroyed clay-court experts Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro.

    What else could he do to prove himself? Win Wimbledon one month later. It would cement his rise to No. 1 and the culmination of his all-time legacy.

    Could anyone have defeated 2008 Nadal? He is the No. 2 player on this list because someone else can overshadow these numbers in another era. However, his two-week stretch would probably be the consensus winner of dominance, because he is overwhelmingly acclaimed as the greatest player on clay.

1. Bjorn Borg 1978

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    OK, I agree that 2008 Rafael Nadal would beat 1978 Bjorn Borg straight up, even when we try and neutralize conditions and technology, as we did two years ago in this matchup piece.

    But Borg gets credit for having the most dominant performance at Roland Garros. He dropped zero sets and only 32 games, which is nine fewer than Nadal's 2008 total. (You may have noted that Borg's 38 games in 1980 is also lower.) He delivered six bagels and seven breadsticks, enough for a start-up bakery in Paris. He also crushed defending champion and clay-court master Guillermo Vilas 6-1, 6-1, 6-3.

    It's interesting to note that both 1978 Borg and 2008 Nadal were almost exactly at their 22nd birthdays. Is this the most ideal time to dominate Roland Garros? They possessed championship mastery and youthful energy. They both intimidated the ATP fields on clay.

    They would continue to win more majors, but even they could only have the perfect storm once. And two years later, each would reproduce an echo boom of their best performances.

    Remarkable symmetry. They were two champions who clearly lapped their competition on clay.