Tennis: The Best Male Clay Courters of the Open Era

JA AllenSenior Writer IMay 15, 2013

Tennis: The Best Male Clay Courters of the Open Era

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    Heading into the French Open, the second major of the season, most players prepare diligently for their final hurrah on clay. It is probably the least understood and least appreciated of the court surfaces players endure each year.

    If the truth be told, players who learn to play on clay and embrace the surface’s forgiving nature generally become better, more successful all-around players than those who learn the game on grass or hard courts.

    The typical clay court player excels at patience by learning how to develop points and excellent defensive skills.

    For a long time, it seemed that some players segregated their careers by either avoiding clay altogether or by playing exclusively on the red dirt. But with the start of the Open Era, and the necessity to play on multiple surfaces, some players built successful all-court games using clay court expertise as the foundation. 

    These male players achieved a Top 10 ATP ranking, a winning percentage in excess of 70 percent on clay throughout their careers and double digit title wins on clay. Most also won at least one French Open, although not all. 

14. Carlos Moya of Spain

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    Career clay wins/losses: 337-143

    Winning percentage: 70.2

    Career clay wins: 16

    Carlos Moya won the French Open in 1998 and climbed to the world No. 1 ranking in 1999. Moya became the first Spaniard to hold the No. 1 spot since the ATP began its current ranking system. He held that lofty position for two weeks before Sampras grabbed the top spot back.

    Moya turned pro in 1995 and won the first of his 16 clay court titles at Buenos Aires that year, defeating Felix Mantilla of Spain. Moya was runner-up twelve times in clay court finals in addition to his 16 victories.

    Starting in 2005, Moya fell out of the Top 10. A persistent foot injury proved to be too much to overcome, and Moya retired from tennis in 2010.

    Moya was well-respected by players on tour and was one of the leaders of the Spanish wave that seemed to dominate the tour in the 2000s.

13. David Ferrer of Spain

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    Career clay wins/losses: 252-102

    Winning percentage: 71.2

    Career wins: 10

    At 31 years of age, David Ferrer achieved his highest ATP ranking. He currently sits at No. 4, looking over his shoulder as Rafael Nadal continues to climb.

    Nadal, however, has little room to improve on his 2012 clay court season.

    Ferrer is known for his dogged determination. He never gives up on a point and scrambles to every ball, finding a way to return it. Suffering from no major injuries, Ferrer continues to be very effective on clay, winning one title in 2013 at Buenos Aires, defeating Stanislas Wawrinka in the final.

    In addition to that victory on clay, Ferrer has reached the finals in Acapulco, losing to Nadal, and the finals in Oeiras, losing to Wawrinka.

    Even at age 31, Ferrer shows no signs of slowing up on clay—or any surface, for that matter. There is every reason to suspect Ferrer will continue to add to his impressive clay resume.

12. Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain

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    Career clay wins/losses: 254-95

    Winning percentage: 72.8

    Career clay wins: 13

    Juan Carlos Ferrero, currently 31 years of age, retired from the tour in October of 2012. He was a right-hander who employed a two-handed backhand with uncanny accuracy.

    After losing to Albert Costa in the finals of the 2002 French Open, Ferrero won it in 2003—defeating Martin Verkerk in straight sets in the final. Later in 2003, Ferrero rose to the No. 1 ranking, taking it away from American Andre Agassi at the conclusion of the US Open at Flushing Meadows.

    In 2004, injuries began to plague the Spaniard, seeing him drop out of the Top 30 in men’s tennis. Although Ferrero returned to the top 30 for most of the next few years, he was never able to climb back into the Top 10.

    Even so, Ferrero was rarely ranked outside the top 20 throughout most of his career. He made his mark, adding to the Spanish tradition of great clay court players.

11. Yannick Noah of France

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    Career clay wins/losses: 215-74

    Winning percentage: 74.4

    Career clay wins: 12

    Frenchman Yannick Noah played the most significant part of his career in the 1980s. He won the French Open in 1983, defeating Mats Wilander in the final.

    Paris fairly sizzled that summer because Noah was the first Frenchman to win at Roland Garros in 37 years. No Frenchman since Noah has managed to win it.

    He also won the doubles title in Paris in 1984 with partner Henri Leconte. 

    Noah reached 19 finals on clay courts, winning 12 of them. In 1986, he climbed to his highest ATP ranking, reaching No. 3 in the world.

    Noah’s athleticism and charismatic smile made him very popular throughout the world, and he became a great ambassador for tennis. He made tennis exciting and fun to watch, especially on the traditionally slow-moving clay.

10. Mats Wilander of Sweden

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    Career clay wins/losses: 264-80

    Winning percentage: 76.7

    Career clay wins: 20

    In 1982, playing in his first French Open, 17-year-old Mats Wilander became the youngest ever to win the championship—a record that was soon surpassed by Michael Chang.

    By winning at Roland Garros on his first attempt, Wilander set another record which was later equaled by Rafael Nadal in 2005.

    Throughout his career, Wilander was a dogged competitor whose ease of movement around the court was deceptive. He employed a two-handed backhand with great efficiency and effectiveness. 

    Wilander won 20 titles on clay, including three French Open Championships in 1982, 1985 and 1988.

    He achieved the No. 1 ranking in 1988 after winning three of the four Grand Slam titles.  He also reached two French Open finals in 1983 and 1987, losing to Yannick Noah and Ivan Lendl, respectively.

    Wilander remained dedicated to Davis Cup tennis throughout his career and into retirement, where he served as coach for Sweden.

    Wilander’s patience on the court and ability to construct points were direct results of his skill in clay court tennis.

9. Roger Federer of Switzerland

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    Career clay wins/losses: 179-54

    Winning percentage: 76.8

    Career clay wins: 10

    Roger Federer is, of course, still active. In fact, he is playing on clay this week in Rome as the tour makes its last stop before making its way to Paris.

    The fact that the Swiss is on this list of best clay court players may seem remarkable to casual observers of the game. It seems all pros playing today are overshadowed on clay by the great Rafael Nadal. The world No. 5 stands head and shoulders above any other player wielding a racket on clay courts these days.

    But throughout his career, Federer was (and still may be) the No. 2 player on the surface. Unfortunately for Federer, he generally met Nadal in finals on clay courts; the results being that the Swiss seldom won those contests. 

    He met Nadal in French Open finals from 2006-08, losing to him each time. In 2009, Federer finally won his first and only French Open title, defeating Robin Soderling in the final. Soderling had upset Nadal in the fourth round in a stunning turn of events.

    In all, Federer has reached five French Open finals in his career, losing to Nadal four times.

    Federer, of course, was ranked world No. 1 for 302 weeks and is currently ranked No. 3 heading into Paris.

    So far in 2013, Federer has not won a clay tournament, but he has hopes of turning his season around in time for the rigors of Stade Roland Garros.

8. Manuel Orantes of Spain

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    Career clay wins/losses: 489-147

    Winning percentage: 76.9

    Career clay wins: 29

    Spaniard Manuel Orantes played primarily in the 1970s and 1980s.

    In 1975, he won the US Open played at Forest Hills on clay, defeating Jimmy Connors in the final. He also reached the finals of the French Open in 1974 but lost in five sets to Bjorn Borg after reaching a two-set lead. 

    Orantes was a left-hander with a deft one-handed backhand. He was a commanding presence on court, yet remained one of the friendliest players on tour.

    His proudest achievements were in Davis Cup play, where he contributed his skill for several years.

    He won 29 singles titles on clay and achieved a career high ranking of world No. 2 in 1973, remaining in the Top 10 for five straight years. He also won 17 doubles titles on clay.

    Orantes remains one of the great Spanish clay court players of the Open era.

7. Thomas Muster of Austria

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    Career clay wins/losses: 422-127

    Winning percentage: 76.9

    Career clay wins: 40

    Thomas Muster came to prominence during the 1990s when he became known as the “King of Clay” to his fans and the media. He climbed to the No. 1 ranking in February of 1996. 

    He won the French Open in 1995, defeating Michael Chang in the final. But that was the only final he reached on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros.

    Throughout his career, he won 40 singles titles on clay—a feat Rafael Nadal equaled when he won the title in Madrid in 2013. Muster's record in clay court finals was 40-5. This included Masters Series titles on clay, where Muster won both Rome and Monte Carlo three times.

    A knee injury in 1989 made competition on any surface other than clay almost impossible for Muster. But he became almost unbeatable on clay throughout his career.  He also enjoyed some success on hard courts, but never on grass.

    After a brief attempted comeback in 2010-2011, Muster is now firmly retired from men’s professional tennis. But he left his mark on the red clay, where he dominated for so many years.

6. Jose-Luis Clerc of Argentina

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    Career clay wins/losses: 301-88

    Winning percentage: 77.4

    Career clay wins: 21

    Jose-Luis Clerc was a contemporary of the great Guillermo Vilas, both playing tennis for Argentina—although Clerc was six years Vilas’ junior. Most of Clerc’s major accomplishments on the tennis court occurred during the 1980s.

    Clerc reached his highest ranking in August of 1981 when he climbed to the No. 4 spot in the ATP, although he was in the upper echelons of the ATP rankings throughout his career.

    He played right-handed, utilizing a one-handed backhand. His best and favored surface was clay, where he achieved an outstanding winning percentage of 77.4. 

    During his career, Clerc won 25 career singles titles, 21 of them on clay.

    The Argentine never won the French Open Championship. His furthest advancement was the semifinals in 1981 and 1982. But he was an outstanding clay court player from Argentina, continuing a great tradition there.

5. Ilie Nastase of Romania

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    Career clay wins/losses: 315-91

    Winning percentage: 77.6

    Career clay wins: 27

    Ilie Nastase played his most successful tennis during the 1970s. He achieved the world No. 1 ranking in August of 1973. Throughout his career Nastase won more than 100 pro titles in singles and doubles.

    Of his 57 career singles titles, he won 27 of them on clay.

    Nastase won the French Open title in 1973, defeating Nikola Pilic of Yugoslavia in straight sets. Nastase was also the runner-up at Stade Roland Garros in 1971, losing to Jan Kodes in four sets.

    Additionally, he won the French Open in doubles in 1970, teamed with countryman Ion Tiriac.

    Most players and fans remember Nastase as a character whose antics on court often sent officials scrambling.

    The Romanian, however, loved to entertain, regardless the situation. Nastase was a very talented and prolific player who certainly added to rich legacy of clay court tennis.

4. Guillermo Vilas of Argentina

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    Career clay wins/losses: 639-163

    Winning percentage: 79.7

    Career clay wins: 46

    Argentine Guillermo Vilas won the French Open in 1977, defeating Brian Gottfried in the final. He advanced to the championship match in Paris in 1975 and 1978, losing to Bjorn Borg both times, and again in 1982, losing to Mats Wilander.

    Vilas also won the US Open in 1977, defeating Jimmy Connors on the clay at Flushing Meadows.

    Throughout his career, Vilas won an astonishing 639 matches on clay, giving him a winning percentage of 79.7. There is no player who won more matches on clay than the man from Argentina.

    Vilas was a left-handed baseline player who used a one-handed backhand.

    Officially, his highest world ranking was No. 2, which he achieved on April 30, 1975, although some believe Vilas and Borg should have rightfully shared the No. 1 ranking that year.

    Vilas retired in 1992, forever leaving his mark on clay court tennis.

3. Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia

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    Career clay wins/losses: 329-75

    Winning percentage: 81.4

    Career clay wins: 28

    Ivan Lendl dominated tennis in the 1980s when he held the No. 1 ranking for the greater part of five years.

    His first No. 1 ranking came in February of 1983, but Lendl would not win his first major until the French Open in 1984 when he defeated John McEnroe. The American held a two-set lead in the match before Lendl came back to win in five.

    Lendl would go on to win two more titles at Roland Garros in 1986 and 1987. The Czech was runner-up twice in 1981 and 1985.

    Lendl played baseline power tennis, employing heavy topspin, while many of the top players during the 1980s preferred serve and volley on all surfaces.

    Lendl led the way in fitness and attention to detail in all aspects of the game. He has been called the father of modern power tennis. 

    He excelled on clay and hard courts, but had little success on grass, despite all his efforts to win on that surface. 

    With over a winning percentage over 80, Lendl is one of the best ever to play tennis on clay.

2. Bjorn Borg of Sweden

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    Career clay wins/losses:  245-39

    Winning percentage: 86.3

    Career clay wins: 30

    For many years, Bjorn Borg was the standard-bearer when it came to clay court tennis for men. No one could come close to equaling his winning percentage or his six French Open Championships.

    He achieved the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 1977.

    Like Nadal, Borg was seldom defeated at the French Open. Aside from two losses to the same man, Adriano Panatta, in 1973 and 1976, the great Borg remained undefeated. While he prowled the courts, Borg owned Paris when the French Open was being played.

    In 1974, Borg won the tournament for the first time when he was 18 years of age, the youngest male ever until Mats Wilander erased that record in 1982 after Borgs retirement.

    Borg was a right-hander, using a two-handed backhand. Primarily a baseline player, Borg had deceptive speed which allowed him time to employ heavy topspin on both his backhand and forehand strokes.

    The powerful Swede developed uncanny accuracy in placing the ball. On clay he was impossible to beat, according to many of his contemporaries.

    He left the game at age 26. Perhaps he could have increased his records on clay—but we will never know. The records he amassed, however, remain a testament to his greatness on this surface.

1. Rafael Nadal of Spain

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    Career clay wins/losses: 280-21

    Winning percentage: 93.0

    Career clay wins: 40

    No man exemplifies clay court tennis more than Rafael Nadal. He is a natural on the surface and often renders his opponents impotent as they try to defeat him on the red dirt.

    He has won the French Open a record-setting seven times, winning in Paris in 2005 on his first try. He has lost on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros only once in a stunning upset to Robin Soderling in 2009 during the fourth round. One loss in eight French Opens is a remarkable record.

    In addition to his French Open record, however, Nadal also owns the record for the most wins at any single tournament—the clay courts of Monte Carlo where he’s won eight consecutive titles. He also holds the record at Rome with six titles and Barcelona with eight.

    Nadal achieved the No. 1 ranking for the first time in August of 2008, finally wrestling it away from Roger Federer, after sitting in the No. 2 spot since 2005.

    Injuries have forced the Spaniard to relinquish that top spot, often being sidelined for months at a time while his knees healed. Today he is ranked No. 5 but playing extremely well on the clay courts again with a 26-2 record and four titles so far this season.

    Like Borg, Nadal employs heavy topspin on both his forehand and backhand. But he has upped the spin on his strokes to a new level in men’s tennis. With aggressive court coverage using his speed and dexterity, Nadal can switch from defense to offense in the blink of eye.

    The question remains, however, as to how long Nadal’s knees will allow him to play. The clay courts are forgiving, but synthetic surfaces are too jarring for Nadal’s style of play.

    Currently, he is going strong and possibly headed for another French Open Championship.

    Without a doubt, Nadal is the greatest man ever to play tennis on clay courts.