On the ATP Tour, the top clay court specialists have created unique space for themselves as competitors who can elevate their game beyond conventional levels.
With powerful play from the baseline, ferocious topspin, consistency in long rallies, and enduring physicality, there are a few players who have left indelible marks on clay, peaking in Paris at the French Open. Some of them have carried this purple patch on other surfaces while others could not replicate their clay success. But most of the players who shone on the slower courts were those who could rise to the occasion, just as the ball rises high on the surface.
Such has been the dominance of a few players on the surface that several top players, who have largely decent numbers on the surface, have been made to look ordinary in comparison. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, for example, have five and four finals at French Open but have managed to win just the one title each. On the opposite side of the spectrum is someone like Manuel Orantes, who never won the French Open but has won the second most matches on clay court with a 553-165 record.
With no European clay court action this year, we we tracked the top clay court players on the WTA tour in the first part of the series. In the second part, we look at the men who have dominated the red dirt through the years. As tennis reminisces about French Open, which would have been ongoing, it’s a good time for a walk down memory lane of clay.
No mention of top male champions on the surface can start without naming the undisputed King of Clay. The Spaniard has made the surface his own fiefdom in a way no player has before and perhaps no one ever will. (Only Chris Evert on the WTA tour comes close in terms of consistent dominance)
His first ATP World Tour win on clay was over Karel Kucera at the 2003 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and in the 17 years since, Nadal has lost only 39 matches on the surface winning 436. This includes an unprecedented 12 French Open titles, 11 Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open trophies, nine Rome Masters and five Madrid Masters. He’s also the only person to win the “Clay Slam”, taking Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, French Open in one year.
The reason for the left-hander’s virtual invincibility on clay will be analysed for years to come, but his incredulous numbers should suffice to highlight his dominance on the red dirt.
Of his 19 Majors, 12 have come at Roland Garros which is double of what Bjorn Borg, his closest competitor, won. His record in Paris is 93-2, his only two losses coming to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015. Three of the top four win streaks at the Slam belong to him.
Only Guillermo Vilas and Manuel Orantes have won more matches on the surface than him but Nadal has a much stronger win percentage at 91%. No player even comes close to having more clay titles than his 59.
He won an ATP record 81 straight matches on clay from 2005 to 2007 and has never lost two consecutive matches on clay.
This in an era that has players like Federer and Djokovic and after multiple injury setbacks, which even saw him pull out of his favourite Slam in 2016. But the cherry on the cake is that there’s a good chance none of these numbers will stand, because Nadal will continue adding to the record book every time he steps on clay.
Long before Nadal established himself as the King of Clay, Bjorn Borg ruled Roland Garros.
A teen winner of the French Open just like the Spaniard, the Swede won all six finals he played and lost only two matches in Paris. All this before he retired at the age of only 26, finishing with a record of 49-2.
His first title came against as an 18-year-old in 1974 and between 1979 and 1981, Borg won an ATP record 41 consecutive sets at the French Open. He still holds the record for winning a Major (1978) with fewest games lost (32).
His topspin-laden, strong groundstrokes from the baseline and powerful backhand helped him dominate the surface in his relatively short career. But ‘Ice’ Borg was just as successful on grass as well and is the only man to have three consecutive Channel Slams (winning French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.) However, he didn’t win US Open, even when it was played on clay in 1976.
Borg holds third place for most consecutive wins on clay, with 46 victories in 1977–79. Only Nadal with 81 and Vilas with 53 have won more consecutive matches on clay. Of his 64 career titles, 30 came on clay where he had a win loss record of 281-45 with and win rate of over 86%.
Who’s to say what would have happened if Borg had played longer but even in his brief first innings, Borg managed to shatter records.
The Brazilian seemed to morph into a different player whenever he played on clay, especially at Roland Garros. He has reached only three Major finals in his career, winning all three at French Open (1997, 2000, 2001). He is tied for fourth most titles in Paris, despite not reaching the singles final at any other Slam.
In 2004, ‘Guga’ was the only player to beat the then world No 1 Federer at a Grand Slam when he beat the Swiss in the third round at French Open, despite coming back from injury and surgery. An enduring image of the player’s love for the terre battue is the heart he made on the surface to show his love for Paris.
He compiled a 184-79 record on clay courts (36-8 at French Open) including 14 titles and four of five Masters came on the surface as well and had 26-match win streak on clay between 2000 and 2001. During this streak, Kuerten won tournament played on clay including Grand Slam, Masters and ATP series.
The Argentine emphatically tops the list when it comes to the matches won on clay with a record of 679-17. Only Nadal has won more clay-court titles than his tally of 49 (of 62 titles.)
A left-hander who dominated from the baseline, he won just the one French Open title in 1977, but has three runner up finishes, losing to Borg in 1975 and 1978 as well as to Mats Wilander in 1982. His winning count of 58 matches in Paris is behind only the Big Three, which highlights his incredible consistency on the surface.
His prowess on the red dirt was at its peak in 1977 season where he had a spectacular season with a record of 145-14, that is still in the record books. He won both the clay court Grand Slams (US Open) with a record of 14 titles on the surface. He won seven consecutive titles in the second half of the season, all on clay. It was this year that he had his two long winning streaks – 46 all-surface and 53 on clay, broken only by Nadal decades later.
The Czech player won three of his eight Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros. Although he lost his first French Open final in 1981, going down to Borg in five sets, he reached four straight finals in Paris between 1984 and 1987.
His heavy topspin game and baseline prowess made him one of the strongest players on the surface, where he had a solid record of 329-77 with a win rate of 81%, behind only Nadal and Borg. He also won a total of 28 clay court, out of a total of 94.
The first Austrian to win a Grand Slam title, Muster won his only Major at the 1995 French Open, which is also his only final.
But despite his relatively low returns on the Slam circuit, he is considered one of the best players on clay. He won a total of 44 career titles with a whopping 40 of them coming on clay (losing only five), including three at the Monte Carlo Masters and three at the Rome Masters. His win-loss record in clay is a solid 426-127, which is fourth on the all-time list after Nadal passed him.