There will be no complete clay season in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic has curtailed sport seasons all over the world.
But even as the tennis community reminisces about French Open, which would have been ongoing in the last week of May, it’s a good time for a walk down memory lane of the red dirt.
Clay courts have typically provided a stronghold for a certain type of player, making specialists who may have been solid on all surfaces but could elevate their game to another level on the slower courts with longer points. This is not to say that the other players are not as good on the surface, but there is something about the red dirt that makes either makes one a dominant force, or keeps you like everyone else – good but not extraordinary.
Even the best of the lot have been unable to capture French Open – the only clay court Grand Slam – which has eluded players such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams.
In the first of this series, here’s a look at some of the greatest clay court players in women’s tennis, in no particular order.
For many tennis fans, the American is the best ever player on clay, across genders. Her numbers on the surface speak for themselves:
She won seven French Opens (1974, 1975, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1985 and 1986), which is more than any other woman in the Open Era, a record that stood for 27 years before it was broken by Nadal. But her count of Grand Slam titles won on clay is 10 as she won the US Open from 1975 to ’77, when it was played on clay.
The number would have been a lot more had she not been ineligible to compete at Roland Garros from 1976-’78, her prime years on the surface, due to the World TeamTennis.
She was so dominant on the surface that she didn’t lose a match on clay for over six years between 1973 and 1979. Her streak of 125 consecutive matches won on clay is the longest single-surface winning streak in the Open Era, male or female, and more than a quarter of the sets she won were bagels a record of 189 victories in 191 matches on clay from 1973 to 1981)
Her career winning percentage in singles matches of 94.55% (382–22) remains a WTA record and Evert’s winning percentage at the French Open stands at 92.86% (78-6). She also has won more clay-court titles than any woman in the Open Era with 66, ahead of Steffi Graf who has less than half with 32.
The German superstar is said to have famously stated that clay was her least favorite to play on but that didn’t stop her from reaching nine singles and three doubles finals (with Gabriela Sabatini) at Roland Garros.
It was on the red dirt of Paris that she won both her first and 22nd and final Major from 1987 to 1999 – beating Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis. Six of her 22 Grand Slam titles were at the French Open in some epic final battles against the best players of the time. And in her golden year of 1988, she crushed Natasha Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in the final.
In her 17-year career, Graf had a total of 273 victories on clay (30 losses) with a win percentage of over 90%. Her record at Roland Garros stands at a solid 84-10 with a win rate of 89.7% and no one has won more matches than her on the WTA tour in Paris.
With her all-round game, the forceful forehand and the clever backhand, Graf dominated all surfaces through her career but her achievement on clay, a surafce she wasn’t fond of, show her versatility.
The Belgian, with her phenomenal one-handed backhand and swift movement around court, was a dominant force on the terre battue of Paris. She won the French Open four times, including a hat-trick of wins from 2005 to 2007 after struggling in 2004 due to illness. That’s more than half of her total of seven Majors.
In 2006 and 2007 she won consecutive titles without dropping a set, an Open Era record. In fact, she didn’t drop a set in the four finals she played and won there, including a bagel against Kim Clijsters in 2003 and double breadsticks against Mary Pierce in 2005. From 2005 to 2010, she won 40 consecutive sets at Roland Garros. (She was absent in 2008 and 2009 because of her shock first retirement.) Her record of 38-5 at French Open shows her dominance, even in a brief time.
Henin had a solid 85% win percentage (130-22) on the surface, which is third on the all-time list behind Evert and Graf and won 13 clay court titles out of a total of 43.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
She was part of the Spanish Armada that took over Paris from the 1990s onwards, as described by the official Roland Garros site, with a record of 72–13.
In six finals, she won three French Open thrice in 1989, 1994, and 1998 beating the likes of Steffi Graf, Mary Pierce, and Monica Seles. Her first Major at Roland Garros came when she was only 17, the then record for the youngest.
Apart from her singles French Open, she was the finalist at 1991, 1995, 1996 and semi-finalist in 1992, 1993, 1999, 2000. In women’s doubles she was the finalist in 1992 and 1995 as well as the mixed doubles champion in 1990 and 1992 after a runner-up finish in 1989 (with Horacio de la Peña).
She had a 73-13 singles win-loss record (84.9%) in Paris and her 342 match wins on clay in second only to Evert and comfortably ahead of most other players, even though she has lost over hundred matches on the surface as well.
Notably, the Spaniard is the only player to have won two 6-0 sets against Graf, both coming at Roland Garros. Sanchez Vicario won 19 out of her 29 total titles on clay courts.
In what can be seen as a symbolic win, Seles was 15 when she won her first tournament, the Virginia Slims of Houston on clay, beating a retiring Chris Evert.
The youngest to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen at 16 years and six months, Seles won three straight French Opens from 1990 to 1992, beating the then No 1 Graf twice and Sanchez Vicario once. She reached one more final, in 1998 in the second coming of her career, but couldn’t get past Sanchez Vicario.
She won an 85% of her career matches on clay, an incredible win-loss record of 142-25, fourth in the all-time win percentages. Her record at Roland Garros is 54–8, which is not a big number but makes for an impressive win rate.
Seles couldn’t quite recapture her form after being stabbed by a deranged fan at a clay-court event in Germany in 1993, but won 14 titles on clay courts out of her total of 53.