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By Raymond Lee | @Tennis_Now | Wednesday, April 17, 2024


Could a peak Bjorn Borg challenge King of Clay Rafael Nadal in a French Open final? A tennis historian offers the answer.

Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty

There's only one King of Clay.

Rafael Nadal has been supreme clay-court ruler capturing a record 14 Roland Garros championships.

More: The Greatest Women Clay-Court Champions of All Time

Nadal lost only 41 games in 21 sets at the 2008 French Open including a dominant performance in the final over iconic rival Roger Federer.

How would a prime Bjorn Borg, at the peak of his powers, fare against King of Clay Nadal at his best in a French Open final?

Here's my selections for the Greatest Men Clay-Court Champions of all time, with a prediction on a mythical Nadal v. Borg showdown in the conclusion.

The Greatest Male Clay-Court Players of All Time

Pre-Open Era

For tennis players and fans over almost the last two decades there can be only one choice for the GOAT of Clay.

That, of course, is King of Clay Rafael Nadal!

Who else could it be with his 14 Roland Garros ttiles and numerous other clay court tournaments won? Let’s look at the Greatest Men’s Clay Court Players of All Time and see if anyone can possibly even come close to Rafael Nadal.

Anthony “Tony” Wilding

I’m sure many of you have not heard of Tony Wilding. Tony Wilding was one of the greatest players ever.

Wilding’s clay court record was unreal! In 1913 Wilding essentially won the current equivalent of a Grand Slam in winning the World Hard Court in France on clay, the Wimbledon title of course on grass and the World Covered Court on wood!

If you’re wondering why Wilding did not win any French National titles on clay, it is because the French was not open to foreign players unl later and Wilding was from New Zealand. All in all he won the World Hard Court which was on clay twice in 1913 and 1914 before it was temporarily discontinued due to World War I. The World Hard Court was played in France so it was the equivalent of the current French Open and the top clay court major.

Tony Wilding was virtually invincible on clay. He won 74 clay court tournaments out of 93 that he entered. He won at one point 22 consecutive clay court tournaments from 1912 to 1914 and 120 consecutive clay court matches. He won 96.01% of his clay court matches in his career! These are mind boggling numbers or as they say today, video game numbers!

Would Wilding be great today?

I believe he would be. He was about 6’2” tall and a tremendous athlete. He hit with topspin on both sides with Eastern grips. He had a strong serve and a solid volley. Perhaps he would have different strokes under today’s conditions with the superior tennis equipment and training.

Bill Tilden

Tilden still has a valid claim to being the Greatest of All Time. He is essentially the Father of Modern Tennis. He taught the players the strategies, grips, and methods of play. He had a great serve and arguably the best groundstrokes of all me. They said he could play chess on the tennis court. His versatility was perhaps unparalleled.

That being said, how was Tilden clay court play?

According to sources Tilden won at least 84 tournaments on clay out of 156 entered. Some believe Tilden won over 100 clay court tournaments.

Tilden didn’t win the French Nationals (nowadays known as Roland Garros or the French Open) but he did win the World Hardcourt in France in 1921. Tilden also won the US Clay Court Championships seven and the French Pro once.

In those days transportation was not as easy as it is today. Players like Tilden would have to go by boat to these players. It could take many weeks, even months to arrive at your destination. Players would get out of practice.

That being said Tilden did travel to Europe several times to win tournaments like Wimbledon and the already mentioned World Hardcourt on clay. His record in 1930, when Tilden was at the late age of 37. Tilden was clearly past his peak on clay so his results were particularly astonishing. Tilden won the Championships of Five Countries that year! He won the Italian, the Austrian, the German, the Dutch, and Wimbledon. Four of those five championships were on clay. The one exception was of course Wimbledon which was, as it is now, on grass. All and all in 1930, Tilden won 18 tournaments, with 16 of them on clay.

Tilden played forever so some of his percentages on surfaces went down because he played up to his fifties but clearly, he was one of the greatest clay court players ever.

Tilden’s lifetime winning percentage on clay is only 81.54, mainly to the losses he incurred as he aged! I think a greater number to see his greatness on clay is to see that he won 53.85% of his clay court tournaments despite the age decline.

Clearly Tilden is one of the all-me great clay court players.

Open Era

Rod Laver

Rocket Rod Laver is one of the players whose career spanned both the Pre-Open Tennis Era and the Open Era.

The Rocket is still often mentioned by many of the current tennis experts as one of the players who may be the GOAT. Laver won two Grand Slams, the only player who has ever done that. Of course with those two Grand Slams came two French championships, the last one was the French Open in 1969 over Ken Rosewall in straight sets 6-4 6-3 6-4.

Laver won, among his many top tournaments on clay the Italian Open on red clay twice, in 1962 over Roy Emerson and in 1971 over Jan Kodes, the 1968 French Pro in the Open Era over John Newcombe in an incredibly stacked field that had Rosewall, Gonzalez, Newcombe, Roche, Ralston, Anderson, Drysdale, Olmedo and Taylor among others, the 1970 Canadian Open over Roger Taylor. To say Laver has a powerful resume on clay is an understatement.

Laver won over 200 tournaments in his great career with 54 of them on clay. Laver’s style on clay was obviously different from the players of today considering he played with a heavy small wood racquet. However, with that heavy small wood racquet he was able to hit with as much topspin as any player in the game!

Laver’s forehand was usually hit with fairly heavy topspin. Laver’s usual backhand from the baseline was with heavy slice but he could mix it up and drive his backhand with powerful topspin to produce unheard of angles with a wood racquet at the me. He had great touch so players on clay who insisted on staying on the baseline against Laver would be drawn in to the net with Laver’s excellent drop shots. Against any player Laver could mix it up on clay with his fantastic serve and volley or go to the net with his super heavily sliced backhand approach shot.

The amount of weapons Laver had to hurt a player on clay seemed limitless. However, that was not all. Laver was a great defensive player with the best passing shots in the game during his me unl perhaps Connors and Borg came along to rival him in that area. Laver was also extremely fast, perhaps the quickest player in tennis when he was at his peak. He could reach shots few could reach and throw up defensive or offensive lobs to frustrate his opponents. Laver had very powerful wrists so he could flick shots pass his opponents when normal players would be in a defensive position.

I’m sure Laver would have won even more clay tournaments if he had played more of them.

Bjorn Borg

Bjorn Borg is another player who I believe could very well be the GOAT at his best.

Nicknamed “Angelic Assassin”, Borg may not have all the records a Nadal, Federer or Djokovic has but considering that he initially retire at age 25 with 106 tournaments won and 11 majors out of only 27 attempts, he was outstanding at his peak.

At Borg’s best, starting around 1977, he was virtually unbeatable on clay. Borg won the French Open in 1974 and 1975 and then won four straight French Opens from 1978 to 1981. He did not play the French Open in 1977. They would not allow him to play the French Open because of his contractual obligations to World Team Tennis.

If he did play the French in 1977, I would tend to think he would have won it that year also which would have given him seven French Opens. Borg did win Roland Garros six times which was a record until a champion named Rafael Nadal broke it and extended it to a record 14 French Open titles.

Borg still has a record that Nadal has not been able to beat. That record is the least games lost in a Roland Garros tournament. Borg lost only 28 games in the French Open of 1978 while winning 127 games. Guillermo Vilas, perhaps the second-best clay court player in the world was only able to win five games in the final against the unstoppable Borg.

Nadal only lost 35 games in 2017 at the French Open but that also included Pablo Carreno Busta retiring in the second set of a match in the quarterfinals.

Borg had the perfect game for clay court tennis. He had powerful topspin shots off both sides. He never seemed to miss and if a player dared to approach the net, he would find a sharp angled passing shot zooming past him. Borg was possibly the fastest man in tennis and his stamina was legendary. I believe he has said he never red in a match. He also had a big serve when needed and his volley was very good. Though he’s typecast as a baseliner, Borg was actually a very versatile player.

Borg was somewhat vulnerable on clay in his early years but even then, he was one of the best, if not the best in the world on clay as a teen.

Jimmy Connors in his peak years was able to defeat Borg on clay several mes in big matches prior to 1977. Laver was able to defeat Borg in the Breon Woods tournament in 1974 in a fantastic match in which both sides played well. Laver prevailed on clay in straight sets. Borg would get his revenge on Laver on that surface in 1975, defeating Laver on clay at the US Open in four sets.

At his peak Borg was comparable to any tennis player in history on clay. It would be fascinating to see how a Borg around 1978 would do with the current racquets and strings.

Here’s Borg against Ivan Lendl in the 1981 French Open Final.

Mats Wilander

The Swedish monopoly of the French Open was thought to perhaps end aer Borg retired but they didn’t discuss that with Mats Wilander in 1982. Mats, in his first appearance at Roland Garros, won the tournament. Wilander defeated in consecutive rounds, Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose Luis Clerc and in the final, Guillermo Vilas. Wilander would end up winning the French Open 3 mes. He defeated Lendl in the final in 1985 and the uber talented Henri Lecounte in 1988. Wilander, in his career, won 20 clay court tournaments which perhaps isn’t that many compared to Nadal but at his peak he was capable of beating just about any clay court player.

Here's Mats Wilander against Lendl in the 1985 French Open final.

Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl in my opinion is one of the most underrated players of all time. He had strong groundstrokes and was exceptionally strong off both sides. He had excellent consistency and moved well. Lendl had great stamina due to his intense training. Some have said his serve, when he was at his peak, was arguably the best in tennis. His volley, while not the level of an Edberg (few, perhaps none are) was good, especially considering his approach shots were so good that he wouldn’t even need to hit a volley.

Lendl won three French Opens, and 8 Masters Tournaments among his numerous clay court titles. Overall Lendl won 81.03% of his matches on clay.

Gustavo Kuerten

Kuerten is an extremely tough player to rank among the great clay court players. He won three French Open championships.

Yet he only won 69.88% of his clay court matches which is excellent, but not what you would expect of a player that won three French Opens. When he was playing well on clay he just seemed like an unstoppable force of nature. Winners would fly off his racquet and it would seem so ridiculously easy. I have heard people menon that about Rod Laver when he was in the zone. You think to yourself that it can’t be that easy to hit these winners, yet Kuerten seemed to do it. Even past his prime, Kuerten stopped Roger Federer at his peak at the 2004 French Open 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Kuerten won 15 clay court tournaments in his career, of which 5 were Masters Level Tournaments and 3 majors with the French Open championships. A top-notch clay court record but clearly not on the level of many of the others.

Here’s Kuerten in the third round of the 2001 French Open against Michael Russell, who now coaches Taylor Fritz.

Kuerten was down two sets and 2-5 in the third set. Russell had match point at 3-5 in the third set. A great match. Russell played a tremendous match but Kuerten went on one of his hot streaks where the winners could fly off his racquet. Kuerten had a wonderful flowing backhand.

Novak Djokovic

Sometimes you get the feeling over the last few decades that the French Open winner is always Rafael Nadal. Obviously, that is not the case. Novak Djokovic is one of the few players who has been able to defeat Nadal at the French Open and has won three French Opens.

Djokovic, as we all know, has been the dominant player overall in Men’s Tennis for more than 10 years. Since 2005, the only winners of the French Open has been Nadal with 14, Djokovic with 3, Federer with 1 and Wawrinka with 1.

On clay Nadal has beaten Djokovic 20 times to Djokovic’s 8. At the French Open, in head-to-head matchups, Djokovic has won two times to Nadal’s 8. Still, considering it’s Nadal on clay, that is strong.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last 20 years Novak Djokovic has been probably the second-best clay court player in the world to Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic, in his career has an 80.36% on clay.

Here’s Djokovic beating Nadal in the 2021 French Open.

Rafael Nadal

There is only one King of Clay.

In his career so far, Rafael Nadal has won 474 and lost only 45 for a 91.30%! That’s an unreal percentage that is topped only by a few players in tennis history like Chris Evert. Evert won 382 matches and lost only 22 for 94.55% and Anthony Wilding who won 313 matches on clay and lost only 13 for 96.01%.

The statistics for Nadal on clay are staggering. He has won 112 matches at the French Open and lost only 3 for 97.40! Two of those losses have been to Novak Djokovic, which is hardly shameful and one loss has been to Robin Soderling who was in the zone. I would venture to say that in his three losses at the French Open that he probably would have beaten virtually any other player that day.

Nadal has won 63 clay court tournaments in his career so far. We have the 14 majors on clay in his French Open tournament win and over 20 Master Level tournaments on clay, including 10 Italian Opens and 11 Monte Carlo Opens.

Nadal’s huge ley topspin forehand is one of the greatest clay court weapons of all me! Nadal dominates rallies on clay with this awesome shot. The power and rpms he can get on the forehand side is amazing. We also forget how strong his two-handed backhand is on clay. It is a consistent powerful stroke.

Nadal’s footwork is also astounding in how he gets into position so early to pound his powerhouse forehand. To win three sets on clay, especially at Roland Garros with the unrelenting topspin power and consistency demands a superhuman effort. Only on three occasions has that happened.

Here’s Nadal in one of his finest clay court matches against his eternal rival, Novak Djokovic at the 2020 French Open final.

Honorable Mentions

It’s quite possible that greats like Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez may have reached levels as high as anyone on clay but it’s hard to quantify their levels.

Ken Rosewall also was an excellent clay court player who maintained a high quality for a long me.

Ellsworth Vines

Ellsworth Vines won the French Pro in 1935 over Hans Nusslein, who was arguably the best clay court player in the world. The problem is that Vines played a great poron of his career in the Pros which was a higher level of play. The compeon is not apples to apples. Essenally, it’s like Djokovic was playing Federer, Murray, and Nadal all the me. The numbers would look different than if Djokovic was playing a normal schedule on the ATP tour. Overall Vines was one of the greatest ever and a very strong clay court player. It’s hard to get a gage on how strong he was on clay.

Jack Kramer

Kramer possibly was the best player in the world on clay for a few years. Kramer in 1948 swept Bobby Riggs, Pancho Segura and Dinny Pails on a clay court tour. Riggs and Segura were two of the best clay court players ever and Pails was an excellent player.

Pancho Gonzalez

Pancho Gonzalez was a terrific clay court player at his best but as with Kramer and Vines, Gonzalez played on the Old Pro Tour so his numbers cannot be compared to players who played in the Open Era or with players like Wilding who played all the top players, strong and less strong in the world.

Gonzalez generally played the cream of the crop all the time. Gonzalez in the first French Open, in a year he would be 40, defeated the defending champion Roy Emerson in the quarterfinals to reach the semifinals. Laver ended the Gonzalez run in straight sets in the semifinals but to be fair, Gonzalez’s match against Emerson was a five-set match so he could not have been in the best shape. I’m fairly confident that Gonzalez would have won a number of French Opens if he was allowed to play it during his peak years.

Ken Rosewall

Ken Rosewall was a tennis legend and known for his great backhand, groundstrokes, and smooth game. He also had one of the greatest volleys of all-me.

Rosewall won the French Title as an amateur in 1953 defeating Vic Seixas. He won the first French Open in 1968 over Rod Laver. He also won 4 French Pros on clay while he was on the Old Pro Tour over players like Hoad, Gimeno and Pancho Gonzalez.

Some have said Rosewall was perhaps a beer clay court player than Rod Laver. Perhaps but I don’t think so. Laver defeated Rosewall more mes than not on clay, had a higher winning percentage on clay by a good margin over Rosewall and won far more titles on clay than Rosewall. Laver won 54 titles on clay, not that far behind Nadal. Rosewall won 39 titles on clay. Laver won 15 more tournaments on clay and led head-to-head. That’s a huge difference in achievements.

Laver clearly has to rank higher than Rosewall. Frankly if you look at the clay court records or both, I don’t see how anyone can rank Rosewall over Laver on clay. But to be fair, people were not able to see all the stats because they were not available unl recent years.

Rosewall had a 73.66% on clay in his career. That’s excellent considering that he played on the Old Pro Tour with top players in every round but it’s lower than you would hope for a player who is to be considered as one of the greatest clay courters of all-time.

Laver, for example, had a 79.51% on clay in his career which is a big difference and Laver also played on the Old Pro Tour although not as long as Rosewall did.

Guillermo Vilas

In some ways Vilas was an early version of Rafael Nadal or perhaps Nadal is a later version of Guillermo Vilas. Both were lefties, both hit with huge topspin, both were great on clay and both were immensely strong. Vilas did have a one-handed topspin backhand to Nadal’s two hander. Perhaps in another era Vilas would have been the best player in the world on clay but he happened to play in the same era as Bjorn Borg, who arguably at his best was as dominant on clay as any player in tennis history. Vilas won 49 clay court tournaments in his great career. This included the 1977 French Open and the 1977 US Open. In those days the US Open was played on clay.

Here's Vilas defeating the great Jimmy Connors on clay in the 1977 US Open final.

Manuel Santana

I have a friend of mine who could discuss Manuel Santana’s topspin backhand ad infinitum. Santana was a great clay player and won 52 clay court tournaments in his career. He was a master of all spins. If memory serves, Santana could hit a ball with so much backspin that it could bounce back to the other side of the net. A great player on all surfaces, not just clay.

Here’s Santana defeating Rod Laver on clay in 1970 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

Jimmy Connors

Connors didn’t win a huge amount of clay court tournaments in his career but he was always terrific on this surface. He won the US Open on a clay surface over possibly the greatest clay court player of all-me in Bjorn Borg in 1976 in a tremendous four set final. He also won the US Clay Court Championship in 1974 over Borg on clay.

Connors’ consistent powerful groundstrokes made him an awesome player on clay and any surface. I think it’s quite possible that Connors’ record on clay would have been far greater if he went to the French Open more in his peak years. I think he would have won a lot of tournaments on European clay.

Here’s Connors beating Borg in the 1976 US Open Final. It is possibly Connors’ greatest win. Here’s the last point of the 1976 US Open final.

Roger Federer

Federer is of course an icon of tennis and one of the greatest players ever to use a tennis racquet. Federer is of course great on all surfaces. His mobility was incredible. The Federer groundstrokes, especially his powerful forehand and his versatility are almost unparalleled! You combine that with his serve, one of the greatest and you get an unbelievable clay court player.

The unfortunate thing is that Federer played in the same era as Nadal and Djokovic who are also super clay court players.

Federer’s record on clay is superb and he is one of the few who has defeated Nadal on a red clay court. Federer has won 1 French Open in 2009 when Nadal was upset by Robin Soderling. But winning 1 French Open doesn’t tell the whole story about Federer’s greatness on clay. Federer has also been in 4 French Open Finals, unfortunately the juggernaut Nadal was waiting on the other side of the net and defeated him. Perhaps in another era Federer would have won many French Open titles.

Overall Federer’s is 226-71 on clay for 76.09% with 11 tournaments won on clay.


So is Rafael Nadal the greatest male clay court player of all time?

You would have to say that is absolutely undebatable considering all of his astounding accomplishments on clay.

I do think Bjorn Borg at his best was equally dominant.

Borg’s swing pattern is ideal for today’s racquets and strings so it’s possible that he would even be more dominant with the current equipment.

Anthony Wilding’s staskal numbers and overall ability cannot be forgotten also. Wilding’s stats of winning 74 clay titles, including two majors with a 96.01% seems unmatched.

It wouldn’t be surprising if any of these players, given the same equipment and overall technology in tennis could defeat the other. All of these players were extremely talented and skilled in clay court tennis. I wanted to see who reached the highest level at their best on clay. I also wanted to see evidence of great accomplishments on this surface was to see their career average level on clay.

It’s clear to me that the three players in the Top Tier of the greatest clay court players of all-me are: Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, and Anthony Wilding.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer, tennis historian and avid tennis player who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and

Check out Raymond Lee's Articles: Star Turns: Top Tournament Performances in Tennis History, One for One: Who is the GOAT for One Match? Celebrating 50th Anniversary of John Newcombe's 1973 US Open Win, Why Novak Djokovic Can Win 30 Slams and Holy Grail: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is Toughest Task in Sport.


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