A Retrospective: Who's the Best Tennis Player on Clay?

Marc Weinreich@QuestionMarcsCorrespondent IMay 28, 2012

A Retrospective: Who's the Best Tennis Player on Clay?

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    Let's not kid ourselves. Rafael Nadal is, without a doubt, the best ever on clay. The Dude is a master potter. You could say he's "kiln" it on clay.

    It doesn't matter what his ATP ranking is during the year. When Rafa rolls into Roland Garros, he's the favorite to win. The Spaniard is 45-1 at the French Open. 'Nuff said.

    But let's not give him all the credit. There have been a number of other players who've carved out a reputation on clay.

    Here's my top five greatest players to grace the red dirt.

Ivan Lendl

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    For starters, you know you're kind of a big deal when a country honors you with a postage stamp that has your mug on it. What's that you say? That country is North Korea? Well, then, you're pretty much entering Dos Equis-man territory: one of the baddest men ever.

    Such is the case of Ivan Lendl, who, in 1986, had bestowed upon him by the "Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea" (see: North Korea), a postage stamp in his honor.

    Lendl is an incredible 53-12 at the French Open, highlighted by three wins in the 1980s that began with a victory in the final against Hall of Famer John McEnroe in 1984. Only two other players have held the No. 1 spot longer than Lendl's 270 weeks: Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Not bad company.

    It's as if you can still hear the echoes of ghosts from his native Czechoslovakia still whispering, "Lendl, so hot right now."

    Considered by many to be the grandfather of "power tennis," Lendl's game was all about topspin, which is what allowed him to dominate from the baseline on clay.

    But perhaps his most memorable match on clay wasn't the one in which he won, but the one in which he served as a distraction to dramatic events taking place off the court.

    Lendl played in the French Open final against Michael Chang on June 5 1989, one day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Chang went on to win the match, which lasted almost five hours, and at 17 years old, became the youngest player to win a Grand Slam.

    But Chang told Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times in 2009  that what he remembers most was how he and Lendl became a welcome distraction for spectators in China:

    "A lot of people forget that Tiananmen Square was going on," Chang says of the 1989 civilian protests in Beijing that were quelled by military gunfire, resulting in more than 100 deaths. "The crackdown that happened was on the middle Sunday at the French Open, so if I was not practicing or playing a match, I was glued to the television, watching the events unfold...

    "I often tell people I think it was God's purpose for me to be able to win the French Open the way it was won because I was able to put a smile on Chinese people's faces around the world at a time when there wasn't much to smile about."

    And when the match was over, Chang had nothing but praise for Lendl: "He walked straight up to me, stuck out his hand and said, 'Congratulations. Great job at the French Open.' "

    A proven winner on clay and gracious in defeat. Give this man a stamp.

Mats Wilander

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    Jimmy Connors. Andre Aggasi. Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer. And Mats Wilander. That's it. That's the exhaustive list of players who have won Grand Slams on clay, grass and hard courts.

    But there's an even more exclusive list: players who have won two Grand Slam events on each of the three surfaces. And that list is limited to Wilander and that Rafa guy.

    The Swede won on clay at the highest level three times; he won the French Open in 1982, when, at just 17 years old, he became the youngest player to win the French Open. He won again in 1985 and then a third time in 1988 when he beat Henri Leconte on the strength of a 97 percent success rate on first serves.

    For a while, he was known as the "other" Swedish tennis player, often finding himself overshadowed by countryman Bjorn Bjorg, who also enjoyed quite a lot of success on clay. But when all was said and done, Wilander left a legacy as one of the greatest ever to step onto clay.

    And in 2009, just to show that he hasn't lost his cool, he played tennis with Will Ferrell.

Gustavo Kuerten

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    Gustavo Kuerten won on clay at the French Open three times. In so doing, he showed the world that his native Brazil wasn't just chock full of soccer players.

    "Guga" seemingly came out of nowhere in 1997 when he became the third lowest-ranked Grand Slam winner ever—66 on the ATP list—after beating Sergi Bruguera in the French Open final (and Thomas Muster and Yevgeny Kafelnikov on the way).

    Rumor has it that when he accepted the trophy from tennis great Guillermo Villas and childhood idol Bjorn Bjorg after winning the French Open in 1997, Villas whispered into the ear of the then 21-year-old Kuerten, "Get ready, kid, it's going to rain women on your lap."

    Well, two more French trophies would fall into his lap, one in 2000 and his third and final championship at the French Open in 2001. He would reach the quarterfinals at the French Open in 2004, his second time since 1999, and on the way would hand Roger Federer his only loss in a Grand Slam event in 2004. 

    His final singles match came on May 25, 2008, appropriately at the French Open on the clay surface that he had dominated for so many years. Though he lost to Paul-Henri Mathieu, he walked off the court finishing his career in the same blue and yellow "lucky" jersey that he wore when Villas whispered those words into his ear in '97.

Björn Borg

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    I think somewhere in the athletes' handbook of coolness is a rule that if you're going to rock a headband and have hair longer than your wife, you best have the game to back up the swag.

    And next to that rule in said handbook is probably a picture of Borg. Bjorn Borg.

    As for why he is second only to Rafael Nadal on clay, the numbers speak for themselves: 49-2 record at the French Open highlighted not by one, two or three championships on clay but six, which makes him tied with Nadal, the man widely considered to be the greatest ever on clay.

    The three reasons I'm hesitant to make Borg No. 1:

    1) Nadal got his while Federer was absolutely at the top of his game. Fed was destroying everything in sight, except for Nadal at the French Open. Borg, while certainly doing more than enough to distinguish himself among other greats in the field—namely John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors—never had quite that level of competition like having to go though a Roger Federer. The Roger Federer.

    2) Nadal turns 26 next week. While he and Borg are tied now for the most wins on clay at the highest level, history will most likely regard Rafa as the best player on the clay surface.

    3) Borg finished his career at the French Open with a record of 49-2. While that's certainly outstanding—it's good for second all time on the surface, in my book—Rafa will most definitely have a better record by the the time this French Open concludes.

    But let's not judge him just by his wins at the French Open.

    Borg reached the finals of the 1976 U.S. Open at a time when the tournament was played on clay. He would go on to lose to Connors, but found himself at the pinnacle of his career by winning the French Open and Wimbledon for three consecutive years from 1978-1980, and kicked it all off by winning the Open in '78 without dropping a set, something only he, Nastase and Nadal have done in the history of the French Open.

    And perhaps most impressive of all, he convinced the world that the headband is in style.

The King of Clay

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    The sky is blue. The grass is green. And Rafael Nadal is already the greatest ever to step onto tennis' version of the red carpet. As the picture suggests, he literally and figuratively sits alone on the clay surface.

    At just 25 years old, Nadal has already racked up six career championships on clay at its highest level at the French Open, winning it every year since 2005 except 2009 and is backed by an overall record of 45-1 at the tournament.

    Roger Federer may be the greatest of all time, but Nadal owns him on clay with a 12-2 record all time against the Swiss champ. And as for Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest of the last decade, Nadal boasts an 11-2 record against the "djokster" on clay. Nadal has more than proven himself on every surface and against all kinds of competition.

    There's no room for discussion here. Nadal is the clay master. And if you don't believe me, watch him win his seventh French Open in a few weeks.


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