STATISFACTION is Tennis Now’s weekly look inside the numbers of professional tennis. This week we will try to decide, once and for all, who the real King of Clay is.
Different Eras, Same Domination
Unless you are talking about a high-def version of Grand Slam 2 for Playstation, none of us will ever have the luxury of watching the two greatest clay-court tennis players of all-time—Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal—square off in their primes.
Without a tangible head-to-head to go on, the truth is that it’s hard to say which player was more dominant in his prime.
The argument will certainly tilt in Nadal’s favor if he is to capture a seventh Grand Slam—there’d be no denying his supremacy to Borg then. But what if, perchance, Nadal bows out in the quarterfinals of this year’s French Open and never wins it again? I know it seems implausible right now, with Nadal knocking the yellow fuzz off the ball and dominating everybody and everything in his way, but what if?
It would leave Nadal and Borg with identical French Open records: each 49-2 and each with six titles in eight appearances. How then, to decide who the real King of Clay is?
Inside the French Open Numbers
As much as the current generation tends to assume that Rafa is superior to Borg on clay, the fact of the matter is that their bodies of work are quite similar, especially when it comes to the French Open. Both currently have six titles, both have won it twice without losing a set. While Nadal has lost fewer sets, Borg has played more dominant matches in terms of games lost.
Here’s a quick look at some of the telling numbers from each French Open career:
Borg, French Open: 6 Titles, 49-2
*Lost in 4th round
** Lost in QF’s
Nadal, French Open: 6 Titles, 45-1
As previously stated, it’s hard to decipher the numbers in a way that presents a clear-cut king. Nadal has lost fewer sets (13 for him, 24 for Borg) and been pushed to less five-setters (1 for him and 5 for Borg), but Borg has more bagels and breadsticks (56 for him to 31) to Nadal.
Their Most Dominant Year: Borg 1978, Nadal 2008
As great as each has been, both Borg and Nadal have had years where they were almost superhuman. Let’s take a look at the best year that each has ever had at the French:
In 1978, Borg annihilated everything in his way, losing zero sets and having 13 of 21 end in a bagel or breadstick. Before you think it was luck of the draw, take into account that Borg defeated one of the greatest clay-courters in history, Guillermo Vilas, in the final, while only losing four games. In the quarterfinals, Borg defeated Raul Ramirez (one of only seven people to own more than one victory against him on clay) 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.
In similar fashion Rafael Nadal trounced the Roland Garros field in 2008 for his fourth French Open title. Despite having a difficult draw (Bellucci in round 1, Verdasco, Almagro, Djokovic and Federer in succession in the last four rounds), Nadal ended 12 of 21 sets in bagels or breadsticks, including a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 thrashing of Roger Federer in the final.
Which monumental effort was better, Borg’s 1978 or Nadal’s 2008?
Once again, it’s inconclusive.
Players to have defeated Borg and Nadal more than once
Another way to compare these two clay-court legends is to look analyze their results against elite competition, particularly the players that have beaten each more than once.
As of now, Nadal has suffered fewer defeats on the clay to less people, so I think you’d have to give him the edge over Borg in this category.
Players to defeat Borg more than once on clay:
Number of Defeats
Players to defeat Rafael Nadal more than once on clay:
Number of Defeats
Definitely, Borg fell prey to a few more victims in his career on clay, but keep in mind that Borg played a lot of tennis on American Har-Tru clay, a surface that Nadal never plays on. Connors certainly benefited from this fact.
But judging from Borg’s longer list of rivals on clay, particularly the Italian Adriano Panatta, it’s clear that Rafa has the edge in this regard.
Clay Court Finals, Titles
Lastly, we will look at each player’s record in clay-court finals, their number of titles, and their all-time winning percentage on the surface.
Record in Finals
Seems like you’d have to give Nadal the edge there, but to be fair to Borg, he lost a whopping 13 matches in 1973, then lost another 8 after he’d virtually retired. Without those two years, he’d be a lot closer to Nadal in terms of winning percentage. Throw in the fact that he played a lot more tennis on green clay, and the margin gets even thinner.
At this point it’s hard to decide which player is the real King of Clay, but if Nadal can simply win one more French Open title this year, the title will be all his.
He’ll pass Borg on the all-time clay wins list, own seven French Open titles to go with his eight Monte-Carlos and seven Barcelonas, and nobody will dare dispute his dominance.
In short: He’ll be the King, the one and only King of Clay!
But until he does get that seventh French Open crown, the Borg-Nadal debate is still a legitimate—and fun—one to have.
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