French Open: Who's the More Dominating Champion, Bjorn Borg or Rafael Nadal?

JA AllenSenior Writer IMay 12, 2011

French Open: Who's the More Dominating Champion, Bjorn Borg or Rafael Nadal?

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    Who will be accorded the title of the greater French Open champion––Bjorn Borg or Rafael Nadal?  Before you go rushing off to grasp your well-oiled pens, think about the question for a moment. 

    Both the stoic Swede and the red-hot Rafa dominated on the red dirt making most opponents concede defeat before they even set foot on the red clay to win the elusive title––the holy grail of Stade Roland Garros.

    Of course, Nadal is still an active player and Borg retired in essence 30 years ago.  So Nadal is still adding to his totals. Borg played eight years in total in Paris, and so far Nadal has played six, about to play his seventh in two weeks.

    As we look at these two giants on clay, it is important to realize that in early days, years 1973-1975, the French Open played a best of three format for the first two rounds.  The other rounds, third through the finals, returned to best of five.  Borg, in some instances, had to play fewer matches––a scant footnote.

    Also, during the time Borg played, the French Open seeded only the top 16 players.  During Nadal's tenure, the French Open seeds the top 32. 

    Borg won six out of eight French Open Tournaments.  So far, Nadal has won five out of six French Opens he has entered. The Swede's overall winning percentage at the French is 96.08 while Nadal's rests currently at 97.44.

    But, Nadal is still playing at age 24 and shows no signs of leaving the game.  Borg left the game at age 25.  By winning one more title at the French, Nadal will equal Borg in total French Open championships.

    As we look at their respective campaigns and gauge the number of sets, games and the number of top-seeded opponents they faced, it becomes fairly obvious that the two remain in a dead heat so far.

Borg: French Open 1973

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    In 1973, things were a little different at the French Open Championships. 

    For one thing, the first two rounds were the best of three while the the last five rounds were the traditional best-of-five sets format for the men. Stan Smith was the No. 1 seed coming into Paris with Romanian Ilie Nastase seeded No. 2. 

    Borg as a 17-year-old was unseeded.  In those early years, only the top 16 men were seeded.

    In Borg’s first French Open tournament, he made it to the fourth round. 

    In the first round, Borg defeated the No. 9 seed American Cliff Richey 6-2, 6-3. 

    In the second round, the Swede won over Frenchman Pierre Barthes 3-6, 6-1, 8-6. 

    Borg’s next opponent was American Dick Stockton who provided a very stiff test for the teenager. The American finally fell 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6. 

    In the fourth round, Borg fell to his oft-nemesis, Italian Adriano Panatta, seeded No. 8 in 1973.  Panatta dismissed Borg 6-7, 6-2, 5-7, 6-7.  But Borg did not go gently. 

    In all, Borg won eight sets to his opponents five giving the Swede 78 games won to his opponents 61––a 56.0 game winning percentage.

Borg: French Open 1974

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    In 1974, the first two rounds of the French Open were still the best of three while the the last five rounds were the traditional best of five set format for the men.

    Ilie Nastase was the No. 1 seed coming into Paris with Jan Kodes seeded No. 2.  Borg was the No. 3 seed in 1974. 

    Borg defeated Frenchman Jean-Francois Caujolle 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 in the first round, Spaniard Toma Ovivi 6-1, 6-1 in the second round and Frenchman Jean-Loup Rouyer 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 in the third.

    In the fourth round, he met and defeated American Erik Van Dillen 0-6, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.

    In 1974, Borg won his first grand slam title on the clay in Paris by upsetting the No. 9 seed Mexican Raul Ramirez 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals followed by defeating American Harold Solomon 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1 in the semifinals.

    In the finals, Borg faced clay court specialist, the No. 14 seed Manuel Orantes.  Orantes was good, very good, but not great on the red dirt.  Orantes had taken the first two sets 6-2, 7-6 before the Borg-machine revived in time to blast the Spaniard away 6-0, 6-1, 6-1 to win in five sets. 

    Borg was barely 18 at the time he won his first French Open, which also represented his first grand slam singles title.

    It should be noted that the world No. 1 Jimmy Connors was not allowed to play at the French Open that year because “Jimbo” had signed on the dotted line to play World Team Tennis.

    Because French officials considered the WTT a threat to the success of the the French Open, Connors was forbidden entry.  To show he was an equal hard-head, Connors did not play at the French Open for three years as a show of protest.

    So Borg did not have to face the world No. 1 in 1974 on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros.  

    Borg did win 19 sets while his opponents won eight.  That translated into 142 games as contrasted to his opponents winning 88 or a 61.7 game winning percentage.

    Borg faced and defeated two seeded players on his way to his first French Open Championship.

Rafael Nadal: French Open 2005

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    In 2004, Rafael Nadal, after suffering a stress fracture in his left ankle, missed most of the clay court season and the French Open.

    He made up for his absence in 2005 by dominating the field on clay, winning 24 straight matches. He entered the French Open seeded No. 4, still as a teenager.

    This was Nadal’s first tournament on the storied grounds of Stade Roland Garros.

    No. 4-seed Nadal got to the final by defeating Lars Burgsmuller in the first round, Xavier Malisse in the second, Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the third and another Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean in the fourth.

    In the quarterfinals, Nadal met and turned back fellow countryman David Ferrer 7-5, 6-2, 6-0.

    As the teenager celebrated birthday No. 19, he upset World No. 1 Roger Federer during the 2005 French Open semifinals 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

    Nadal was only one of four men to defeat Federer in 2005.

    In the final, Nadal upended Mariano Puerta 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 to win the French Open on his first try––just as Mats Wilander did in 1982.

    In all, Nadal won 21 sets while losing three during which the young Majorcan managed to win 123 games to his opponent’s 77 or a 61.5 game winning percentage.

    Nadal faced one player seeded in the top 16.

    Nadal left Paris ranked world No. 3.

Bjorn Borg: French Open 1975

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    In 1975, Borg defeated Guillermo Vilas in straight sets to win his second French Open title at age 19.

    He began his campaign defeating American Norman Holmes in the first round 6-2, 6-3.  In the second round, the Swede took out Hungarian Peter Szoke 6-1, 6-1 to advance. 

    After defeating Czech Jiri Hrebec 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, Borg went on to eliminate the No. 15 seed American Stan Smith 6-2, 6-3, 6-0. 

    Borg was beginning to roll.

    In the quarterfinals, the Swede met and defeated the No. 8 seed American Harold Solomon 6-1, 7-5, 6-4.  In the semis, he got by unseeded Italian Adriano Panatta in four sets 6-4, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. 

    In the championship match Borg finally upended the No. 4 seed Argentine Guillermo Vilas 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.

    In all, Borg met and defeated three seeded players. He won 19 sets of tennis and lost one which translated into winning 117 games and losing 53 or a 68.8 game winning percentage.

    In 1975, Italian Panatta was the only one to extend Borg an extra set. This was typical because the Italian was the only one who seemed to be able to get the best of the Swede on clay.

    The following year in 1976, Panatta would upset Borg in the quarterfinals of the French Open.

Bjorn Borg: French Open 1976

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    Having won the French Open the previous two years, in 1976 Borg came into Paris seeded No. 1. 

    That year, however, Borg fell victim to the only man who could get the best of him on the red clay of Stade Roland Garros––Italian Adriano Panatta.  In fact, Panatta, seeded No. 8, would go on to win the tournament.

    Borg went about his business as normal in the opening rounds defeating France’s Dominique Bedel 6-0, 0-6, 6-4, 7-5 in the first round and Austria’s Hans Kary 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in the second. 

    In the third round, Borg met and defeated Italian Antonio Zugarelli 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. 

    The fourth round presented another Frenchman Francois Jauffret. Borg dispatched him in five tough sets 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 10-8. 

    That brought Borg into the quarterfinals where he could feel the finish line again.

    But the man on the other side of the net, Italian Adriano Panatta had other ideas.  Borg lost 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-7.  The Swede ended up packing his bags and heading home early in 1976.

    Borg won 13 sets while his opponents won six––102 games to his opponents 76 games.That gave the Swede a game winning percentage of 57.3.

    The Swede faced two seeded players during the 1976 French Open.

    Borg would go to win his first Wimbledon, however, and the memory of the loss would fade.

Rafael Nadal: French Open 2006

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    Rafael Nadal defeated world No. 1 Roger Federer in the 2006 French Open final.

    During the clay court season in 2006, Nadal won 24 consecutive matches––a repeat of 2005. The product of his efforts resulted in Nadal winning four consecutive tournaments on the red dirt.

    Those who felt that the Majorcan’s overwhelming success on clay in 2005 was a fluke were quickly quieted.

    During this 2006 campaign, Nadal defeated world No. 1 Federer in the finals at Monte Carlo and again in the finals of Rome, where it took a fifth set tiebreak to determine the winner.

    Nadal challenged Federer again in the finals of the 2006 French Open where the Majorcan won, defending his 2005 championship.

    For Roger Federer, the defeat marked the first time the Swiss had lost in the finals of a major.

    Nadal’s path to the French Open final in 2006 saw him defeat Swede Robin Soderling in the first round 6-2, 7-5, 6-1. Next he overcame American Kevin Kim 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in the second round and Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the third.

    In the fourth round, Nadal dispatched Aussie Lleyton Hewitt 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

    Serb Novak Djokovic retired from his quarterfinal match against Nadal at the start of the third set, trailing 6-4, 6-4.  In the semifinals, Nadal defeated Croat Ivan Ljubicic in straight sets 6-4, 6-2, 7-6.

    That set up the final match with Federer, which the Swiss lost 6-1, 1-6, 4-6, 6-7.

    Nadal won 21 sets of tennis while his opponents took three. In all, the Majorcan won 134 games while his opponents captured 86 giving the Majorcan a game winning percentage of 60.9.  Nadal faced three men seeded in the top 16.

    In the end, Nadal had won back-to-back French Open finals.

Bjorn Borg: 1978 French Open

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    In 1978, Borg again defeated Guillermo Vilas in straight sets for his third French Open title. 

    He did not drop a set in securing the 1978 crown—a feat he shared with Ilie Nastase at the time.

    Borg defeated Frenchman Eric Deblicker 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in the first round, American Rick Fagel 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 in the second round, and Italian Paolo Bertolucci 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 in the third.

    In the fourth round, he met and defeated No. 9 seed American Roscoe Tanner 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 to advance to the quarterfinals.

    Borg continued to win by defeating the No. 6 seed Mexican Raul Ramirez 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.

    The Swede followed that victory by winning over the No. 7 seed Italian Corrado Barazzutti 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 in the semifinals.

    Borg defeated a very good clay court specialist, the No. 2 seed Guillermo Vilas in straight sets 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in the 1978 French Open final.

    In all, Borg won 21 sets to his opponents winning zero sets. Borg won 127 games while his opponents won 32 giving him an impressive 79.9 game winning percentage.

    Borg defeated four seeded players in securing his championship in 1978.

Rafael Nadal: French Open 2007

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    Nadal won his third consecutive French Open championship in 2007.

    Earlier that year Nadal finally lost a clay court tournament when Federer defeated him at Hamburg, ending Nadal’s 81-consecutive match winning record on the red dirt.

    Eighty-one consecutive matches won on a single surface is a record for the men’s tour in the Open Era.

    Prior to losing that match, however, Nadal won in Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Rome. 

    Even though Federer had hopes of winning the French Open at long last, Nadal bounced back to overcome the Swiss in the finals.

    Nadal entered Paris in 2007 determined to win his third consecutive French Open championship—his third career singles slam title. The Majorcan was seeded second behind Federer.

    Argentine Juan Martin del Potro met Nadal in the opening round, losing 5-7, 3-6, 2-6.  In the second round, Nadal defeated Italian Flavio Cippola 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, and he followed that with a win over Spaniard Albert Montanes 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in the third round.

    Just as in 2006, Nadal’s opponent in the fourth round was Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, who lost 3-6, 1-6, 6-7 to the unstoppable man from Majorca.

    In the quarterfinals, Nadal took care of his countryman and mentor Carlos Moya 6-4, 6-3, 6-0 and Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals.

    Nadal advanced to the finals for the third year in row, facing Federer for the second consecutive year. Federer extended Nadal to four sets but lost 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6.

    Nadal won 21 sets, losing only one during the tournament. In the process, he won 133 games while his opponents won 67 giving him a game winning percentage of 66.5.  Nadal faced three players seeded in the top 16.

    The Majorcan's reputation on clay was taking on legendary status.

Bjorn Borg: 1979 French Open

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    In the 1979 French Open final, Borg defeated a man with a big serve, Victor Pecci, in four sets.

    Significantly during the year Borg replaced Connors as the No. 1 player in the world.

    The Swede began his defense of his 1978 crown by defeating Czech Tomas Smid 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the first round.  In the second round, the Swede eliminated American Tom Gullickson 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 to advance. 

    After ousting South African Raymond Moore 6-3, 6-1, 6-0 in the third round, Borg went on to eliminate Frenchman Gilles Moretton 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 in the fourth round. 

    It appeared Borg had managed to work his way back into his mode of French Open invincibility.

    In the quarterfinals, the Swede met and defeated Chilean Hans Gildemeister 6-4, 6-1, 7-5. In the semis, Borg forced the No. 4 seed, American Vitas Gerulaitis to go back home as the Swede defeated him 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 to make his way into another final. 

    Finally Borg stopped the brilliant run of Paraguayan Victor Pecci Sr. 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 in the 1979 French Open final. 

    Borg won 21 sets while his opponents won three. 

    Borg won 145 games allowing his opponents a total of 79, giving him a 64.7 game winning percentage. 

    During the fortnight, Borg met and defeated one seeded player, the No. 4 seed Gerulaitis.

Rafael Nadal: French Open 2008

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    In 2008, Nadal won his fourth French Open, once again defeating the world No. 1 Roger Federer.

    Dominating as always on clay, Nadal dispatched his arch rival Federer during three finals on the red dirt, up to and including Paris.

    The Majorcan defeated Federer at Monte Carlo, giving Nadal four straight titles at this Masters Series tournament. He also avenged his loss the previous year in Hamburg by defeating Federer in a three-set final.

    Nadal reigned at the French Open in 2008 with an iron grip.

    His aggressive delivery in Paris allowed few games for his opponents after Nadal settled into his Paris groove.

    Nadal defeated Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the first round followed by a win over Frenchman Nicolas Devilder 6-4, 6-0, 6-1 in the second. In the third round, Nadal met and defeated Jarkko Nieminen 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 as well as dismissing countryman Fernando Verdasco 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 in the fourth.

    Nadal rolled over fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in the quarterfinals. Novak Djokovic tested Nadal but still could not win a set in the semifinals, losing 4-6, 2-6, 6-7.

    This propelled Nadal into his fourth consecutive French Open final where he would meet Federer for the third year in a row.

    The 2008 French Open annihilation of World No. 1 Federer at Stade Roland Garros left the tennis world stunned. Nadal lost only four games and served the Swiss a bagel set (6-1, 6-3, 6-0) in the process.

    In all, Nadal won 21 sets awarding zero sets to his opponents. This translates into 128 games won by the Majorcan while his opposition could only manage to win 41. This gave Nadal a game winning percentage of 75.7 for the tournament.

    Nadal faced two players seeded in the top 16.

    Nadal became the fifth man in the open era to win a major final without losing a set.

    By winning his fourth consecutive French Open final, Nadal joined Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer in winning the same Grand Slam title for four consecutive years.

Bjorn Borg: French Open 1980

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    In 1980, Borg defeated American Vitas Gerulaitis in straight sets, winning his fifth French Open title and his third consecutive championship. Gerulaitis was his semifinal opponent at the 1979 French Open

    Borg dominated the field once again taking out Chilean Alvaro Fillol 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the opening round. In the second round Borg turned away Ecuadorean Andres Gomez in straight sets 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. 

    The third round followed in similar fashion with Borg defeating Frenchman Pascal Portes 6-3, 6-0, 6-1. In the fourth round the Swede took care of Hungarian Balazs Taroczy 6-2, 6-2, 6-0.

    This took Borg to his sixth French Open quarterfinal where he met and dispatched Italian Corrado Barazzutti 6-0, 6-3, 6-3. 

    In the semifinals Borg met American Harold Solomon again, defeating him in straight sets 6-2, 6-2, 6-0.  In the finals against Gerulaitis, Borg enjoyed an easy afternoon winning 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. 

    In all, Borg won 21 sets while his opponents won zero.  Borg won 126 games allowing his opponents a paltry 38 games giving the Swede a game winning percentage of 76.8.

    During the tournament, Borg met and defeated two seeded players.

    It seemed no one could beat the inestimable Swede on the red clay at Stade Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal: French Open 2009

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    Remarkably, Rafael Nadal lost to Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open in 2009.

    Nadal began the 2009 European clay campaign pretty much as he had in the four previous seasons. He won again in Monte Carlo, giving him five consecutive championships there. Nadal set another record by winning the same ATP Masters Series tournament for five years in a row. 

    He set a similar record by winning the tournament in Barcelona.

    In Rome, where he met and defeated Novak Djokovic in the final, Nadal won his fourth consecutive Rome Masters tournament setting another ATP record. But in Madrid, Nadal once again met Federer and lost––a rare clay court defeat for Nadal.

    Yet, for the first time in his career, Nadal entered Paris as the No. 1 seed. He had taken over the No. 1 ranking in August 2008 after winning Wimbledon for the first time.

    Everyone expected Nadal to win the French Open for the fifth consecutive year.

    Then the unthinkable happened. Nadal lost in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open to Swede Robin Soderling 2-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7.

    It was his first loss ever at the French Open. No one was prepared for such a loss because it seemed to all the world that Nadal was unbeatable on the courts of Stade Roland Garros.

    Nadal won 10 sets to his opponent’s three. He also won 74 games while his opposition won 49 games, giving him a game winning percentage of 60.2. He met no players seeded in the top 16 in 2009.

    Roger Federer went on to win the French Open in 2009.

Bjorn Borg: French Open 1981

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    In 1981, Borg won what turned out to be his final French Open championship and his final slam appearance defeating Ivan Lendl in five sets. 

    Borg’s record of six French Open titles remains the record for the men in Paris.

    There was nothing in this tournament to suggest that it would be Borg’s final appearance on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros. 

    Borg began his final grand slam appearance by defeating Spaniard Jose Lopez-Maeso 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round.  In the second round the Swede eliminated Brazilian Cassio Motta 6-1, 7-5, 6-0 to move on to the next round.

    Once the Swede defeated Frenchman Paul Torre 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in the third round, Borg went on to oust American Terry Moor 6-0, 6-0, 6-1 in the fourth round.

    Borg was sailing along barely facing a head wind. The turbulence would come on the grass at Wimbledon and the asphalt of Flushing Meadows.

    In the quarterfinals the Swede met and turned back the No. 15 seed Hungarian Balazs Tarczy 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. In the semis, Borg upended Paraguayan Victor Pecci Sr. 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to advance to his last French Open final. 

    In the 1981 French Open final, Borg stopped the game of the No. 5 seed Czech Ivan Lendl 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1––extended to a rare five-set final.

    Borg won 21 sets while his opponents managed to win two.  Borg won 135 games while his opponents won 55 giving him a 71.1 game winning percentage.

    The Swede met and defeated two seeded players in defending his French Open Championship.

    Borg would never again play on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros as part of the men's tour.

Rafael Nadal: French Open 2010

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    Rafael Nadal won the French Open once again in 2010.

    After falling back to a ranking of No. 3, and for a couple of weeks No. 4 in early 2010, Nadal began to rebuild his game once he hit the red dirt.

    It did not take long.

    Nadal dominated once again during the European clay court season. He won every Masters Series tournament played on clay.  Nadal won his sixth consecutive title in Monte Carlo, setting another ATP record that will be very difficult to equal or surpass.

    Trying to preserve his energy level, Nadal skipped Barcelona, even realizing he would probably win his sixth title there as well. Instead he chose to go on to Rome where he won his fifth Italian Open Title.
    Nadal equalled Andre Agassi’s record of winning 17 ATP Masters Shields.

    In Madrid, Nadal met Federer once again in the final and overcame the Swiss 6-4, 7-6.  Federer had won that title in 2009.

    That gave Nadal the record––he became the first man to have won 18 Masters singles titles.

    Most expected Federer and Nadal to meet again in the 2010 French Open final but Federer lost in the quarterfinals to Robin Soderling 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 4-6.

    This was the same man who had knocked Nadal out in the fourth round in 2009. By losing in the quarterfinals, Federer would lose his No. 1 ranking when Nadal won the French Open.

    Nadal defeated Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the final. This marked the second consecutive final for the Swede.

    In all, Nadal won 21 sets while his opponents scored zero.  The Majorcan accumulated 130 games in his win column while his opponents gathered in 71 games giving the Majorcan a 64.7 game winning percentage. 

    Nadal met one player seeded in the top 16, Robin Soderling in the final. 

    By winning, Nadal reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, leaving Federer one week short of passing Pete Sampras for the record of holding the No. 1 ranking for the longest period of time.

    Nadal was back on top.

Legends: The Final Analysis

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    Bjorn Borg forged a unique playing style electing to stay back and dictate from the baseline, rather than pushing the action forward, advancing to the net.  From the back of the court, Borg dictated play with powerful ground strokes and a very rare two-handed backhand.

    The Swede struck the ball with power, high from the back of the court and brought it down employing considerable topspin. His approach gave him very consistent ground strokes.

    Nadal also employs a two-handed backhand, and other than the fact that Nadal plays left-handed, he hardly departs from the game Borg pioneered.

    Other players during Borg's period of time used topspin as a ploy to mix up their shots and effectively pass their opposition standing on the other side of the net. Borg was one of the first top players to use heavy topspin routinely as part of his arsenal.

    One of his most underrated strokes was his serve which many times saved him when he would find himself down in a service game. Borg could also volley very well and did so effectively especially on grass.

    Add to those ingredients Borg's commitment to fitness and his huge mental edge and you must see how similar these two clay court champions are especially on the red dirt.

    Both men won once they entered the grounds of Stade Roland Garros.  Borg averaged 121. 5 games won in his eight French Open tournaments while Nadal averaged 120.3 game wins in his six forays at the French.

    Borg allowed his opponents an average of 60.25 games per tournament while Nadal allowed his opposition 65.2 games. 

    Borg faced an average of 2.25 players seeded in the top 16 while Nadal averaged 1.67.

    The total game winning percentage for Borg was 66.85 and for Nadal is 64.87.

    At this point, the race is too close to call, but in order to stay toe to toe with Borg, Nadal will have to continue to win in dominating fashion at the French Open. 

    The results of 2011 should prove to be interesting in measuring these two great champions against each other.