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By Raymond Lee | @Tennis_Now | Monday, April 15, 2024


Is Iga Swiatek or Chris Evert the greatest women clay-court champion of all time? A tennis historian states the case.

Photo credit: Tim Clayton/Corbis for Getty

Red clay takes center stage this season.

Roland Garros begins next month with the Olympic Games tennis event set for Roland Garros this summer.

More: Tsitsipas Stuns Sinner

The spotlight shifts to dirt, which raises the question: Who are the Greatest Clay-Court Players of All Time?

Since the 1968 dawn of the Open Era, clearly the most accomplished clay-court champions are Chris Evert on the women’s side and Rafael Nadal on the men’s side.

Chrissie Evert captured seven Roland Garros championships and three US Open crowns when the Open was played on clay at Forest Hills.

Evert’s overwhelming performance in the 1976 US Open was staggering. She lost only 12 games in 12 sets!

But are they truly the best clay court players of all me?

Are there any other contenders to the throne?

I would venture to write that there are some players, at least stascally speaking, that may be able to compete with the unbelievable stascs and accomplishments of these two on clay surfaces.

Who can even come close to the great accomplishments of Evert and Nadal in the Open Era and in tennis history overall?

I am looking at peak level on clay but with much consideraon to overall career level on clay.

Some players can reach unbelievably consistent greatness on a parcular surface. Unfortunately some of them may suffer some injuries that may affect them for the rest of their career.

Today, we spotlight the Greatest Women Clay Court Champions of All Time and tomorrow we will highlight the men ont he list.

I will also include players whose career spanned the Pre-Open Era to the Open Era.

The Greatest Women Clay-Court Players

Margaret Court

Aside from Chris Evert, an iconic champion with outstanding clay-court credentials is Hall of Famer Margaret Court.

As of this writing, Court’s 24 career Grand Slam singles titles makes her co-holder, along with Novak Djokovic, of the all-time major mark.

Margaret Court won five French Championships in 10 attempts defeating among others Chris Evert, Lesley Turner, Maria Bueno, Nancy Richey, Ann Jones, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, and Evonne Goolagong.

The powerful Court had a 44-5 record at the French Championships. It’s an excellent record, but it pales next to Evert’s 72-6 record at the French Open.

Yes, I understand Court defeated Evert in their only meeting in Paris, but Evert was very young at the time and not nearly at the peak of clay court dominance. Even at that Court barely defeated Evert.

Court’s groundstrokes, while consistent and good, were not of the level of Chris Evert. As we know great groundstrokes are very important in any match but especially on a slow clay court. In watching that match on video Court’s great mobility allowed her to keep the ball in play despite Evert controlling many of the rallies.

According to Court’s bio Margaret Court–The Autobiography, Court used to do drills with her fitness coach Keith Rogers to keep the ball in the court over 100 times without missing to prepare to play the red clay. This was obviously a very successful strategy in that Court won at least 55 tournaments on clay including five French Championships and three Italian Championships.

It fit in with Court’s strength which was her great serve, wonderful mobility, and fabulous net play. Margaret Court, like many players of her day with ny heavy wood racquets did not hit topspin on the backhand side but hit it with slice or very flat. Her backhand was very consistent and many thought it was her stronger side. Nearly anytime her opponent hit the ball short Court would be all over it and rush to the net where she was the most dangerous.

Despite Court’s great victory over Evert at the 1973 French Open, I still rank Evert head of Court among all-time clay-court champions.

Martina Navratilova

Arguably, the greatest woman player of all-time. Navralova was known for her great lefty serve and tremendous volley. To be great on clay you also have to have superb groundstrokes. This was clearly true of the Czech-born left-hander.

Matina’s mobility in her peak years was fantastic. At Navratilova's best she was able to toy with players on any surface. Sometimes when you saw Navralova at her best, you would feel almost sorry for her opponent because you knew they were going to be squashed.

Navratilova won the French Open twice—in 1982 and 1984—beating Evert in both finals. Martina was 249-60 for 80.58% in her career on clay, which is excellent. The percentage doesn’t describe the all-courter at her peak on clay. At Navratilova’s peak on clay, she would be the favorite over many of the players that I discussed in this article.

Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf to is the ultimate tennis athlete. She had incredible footwork and mobility, which is vital in tennis, especially at the highest levels. She had a great serve, an excellent backhand which she usually sliced from the baseline but could also drive it with topspin if she needed to. Her volley was very good and her stamina was excellent.

The thing about Graf that immediately stands out even if you never saw her play is her almost mythical forehand. It seemed like any time she hit it, her opponent, with rare exceptions, was on the defensive. It may very well be the greatest single weapon in women’s tennis history.

Graf won six French Opens in 16 attempts. When she reached her prime in 1987 Graf never failed to reach anything less than the quarterfinals in Paris. The German Hall of Famer had an 84-10 record at Roland Garros for a winning percentage of 89.36. Overall on clay Graf won 89.22% of her matches.

Graf is clearly one of the all-time greats on clay surfaces.

Here’s Graf in the 1999 French Open Final against Marna Hingis.

Swiss Miss Hingis was the top seed and the clear favorite to win the match. Graf was past her prime but still a great player at this point.

Monica Seles

Monica Seles, at her best, was clearly one of the finest clay court players ever. Seles, prior to her horrific stabbing in 1993, never failed to reach anything less than the semifinals at the French Open. The semifinal result was the first time she played the French Open in which, as an unseeded player, she lost to Steffi Graf in three sets, 6-3 in the third.

Seles proceeded to win the next three French Opens that she played.

The two-handed titan defeated Graf in straight sets 7-6, 6-4 in the 1990 French Open final. The next year Seles defeated Sanchez-Vicario 6-3 6-4 in the final after Sanchez-Vicario defeated Graf in the semifinals. Then in 1992, the pièce de resistance, the great final that Seles and Graf played in 1992 which Seles won by a score of 6-2, 3-6, 10-8.

Seles only reached the French Open final one more time following the brutal attack she suffered. Seles lost to Sanchez-Vicario by a score of 6-7, 6-0, 2-6 in her final appearance.

After Seles was stabbed in 1993, she missed the next three French Opens. When she came back it was clear she was not the same player. The physical and mental damage was enormous. Seles entered seven more French Opens and never won the tournament again.

At Seles’ best she was up there with Chris Evert as one of the finest clay court players of the Open Era.

Here’s the fantasc Women’s final of the 1992 French Open.

Two of the greatest players of all-time at their peaks in Seles and Graf.

Justine Henin

Jusne Henin is proof that you don’t have to be very tall to be a great tennis player.

Standing at about 5’5 ½” , the Belgian rose to No. 1 in the world in 2003. That year Henin won Roland Garros over Kim Clijsters after defeating Serena Williams in the semifinals and took the US Open also over Kim Clijsters.

Henin would lose in the second round of the French in 2004 but rebounded to win three consecutive Roland Garros titles from 2005 to 2007. She was easily the best clay court player in the world during this period and possibly the best overall player in the world. At the French Open Henin was 41-5 for her career which was 89.1%. Overall Henin won 85.5% of her career matches on clay.

Henin had the perfect game for clay. She had strong, powerful consistent groundstrokes and great mobility. The shot that stood out for her was her great one-handed backhand. The variety she had on her backhand was astounding! She of course had enormous power off that side but she also had great control and great variety. Henin could hit with great topspin off the backhand or heavy slice.

She also had a topflight net game in addition to her great baseline game.

Henin also won the majority of her matches against perhaps her chief rival, Serena Williams on clay, winning four matches to Serena’s one.

Here’s their great semifinal match at the 2003 French Open.

Serena Williams

Serena of course is one of the greatest players of all time with 23 majors in 81 attempmts, including three majors on clay.

Serena won Roland Garros in 2002, 2013 and 2015 and numerous other strong clay court tournaments like the Italian Open.

Serena won Roland Garros three times in 19 attempts with a 69-14 record. That is an 83.13%.

Serena’s great mobility and powerful consistent groundstrokes serves her well on clay. It’s a testament to her great skills that despite the fact that the red clay of Roland Garros slows down her great serve that she is able to win the French Open so often.

Here’s a great match that Serena played against Jennifer Capriati.

Iga Świątek

Iga Swiatek is still very early in her career but even at this beginning stage she is already one of the greatest clay court players of all time.

Iga has already won three Roland Garros and two Rome titles on red clay.

Swiatek’s game, as with many clay court players, revolves around her powerful groundstrokes, especially her forehand. The unique thing about her forehand is that the rpm is so incredibly high on average and sometimes is over 3450 rpm! The forehand is also hit extremely hard with speeds sometimes up to 80 mph. You combine this with her excellent powerful backhand with her great mobility and you have an extremely tough player to beat on any surface, but especially on clay!

Can she catch Chris Evert’s record of French Open titles of seven? I would think she would have a decent chance. However, I don’t think she can ever equal the dominance that Chris Evert had on clay when Evert hardly ever seen to lose a set, much less a match.

Chris Evert

Chris Evert winning on clay was possibly as sure a thing as you get during her peak years. At one point between 1973 and 1979 Evert won 125 consecutive matches against the toughest compeon on the planet. She defeated great players like Marna Navralova, Evonne Goolagong, Margaret Court, Rosie Casals, Sue Barker, Tracy Ausn, and Billie Jean King during this unbelievable streak.

Tracy Ausn ended Evert’s 125 match streak on clay in 1979 7-6 in a tiebreaker at the Italian Open. Undaunted, Evert started a 64-match streak on clay. So in 190 matches on clay Evert was 189-1. That is an amazing feat of invincibility on 1 surface!

Chris Evert, as I mentioned earlier in the article holds the record of most French Open titles with seven which is even more impressive when you consider that she skipped the French Open from 1976 to 1978! The odds are that she probably would have won three more Roland Garros titles during that period!

Evert had the perfect game for clay. Some may even say she had the perfect game for any surface. Evert had of course great groundstrokes with her two-handed backhand arguably the greatest backhand of all ti me. She had great controlled power with the best return in the game.

If players dared to approach the net on clay against her, often they would stare at a passing shot zooming past them or a great lob that would land on the baseline. If a player got to comfortable trading groundstrokes with Evert, her drop shots could bring them in! Oen the drop shot would be an outright winner.

There seemed to be no way anyone could handle the irresistible force that was Chris Evert at her peak, especially on clay. Evert won 70 clay court tournaments in her career. She won 7 French Opens and 3 US Opens on clay for a total of 10 clay court majors. Evert never lost a match at the US Open on clay and was 72-6 at the French Open.

Overall Evert was 441-27 on clay for a 94.2%. A good number of those losses were in her decline years. Most of her career it was easier to swim across the Pacific Ocean than to defeat Evert on clay.

Here’s Evert against Goolagong in the 1975 US Open final.

Pre-Open: Greatest Women Clay-Court Players

Maureen Connolly

Some believe Connolly is the GOAT of Women’s Tennis. Connolly was nicknamed “Lile Mo” because her groundstrokes had the power of was compared to a Sportswriter Nelson Fisher to the USS Missouri, which was a battleship. I have read stories of Connolly driving back the powerful Men’s Serves at the me in practice. Connolly won two French championships and according to some sources, 44-1 on clay for her career.

Helen Wills

Helen Wills succeeded Suzanne Lenglen as the greatest player in the world. At one-point Wills did not lose a set for 7 years! It stands to reason that she was virtually unbeatable on clay as she was virtually unbeatable on any surface. According to some sources, Wills was 89-2 on clay which is a 97.8 percent. One of those 2 losses on clay was to Suzanne Lenglen so I guess you could say that Helen Wills only lost 1 match to ordinary humans instead of the superhuman Lenglen was.

Wills won 4 French titles in 4 attempts.

Suzanne Lenglen

I’ve read about Suzanne Lenglen with great fascination over the years. Her dominance in tennis is perhaps unparalleled! Being a French player who spent most of her playing me in Europe where the main clay in those days was clay, of course she won a huge number of tournaments on that surface!

According to some sources Lenglen was a superhuman 286-3 on clay! That’s a winning percentage of 98.96%. Her invincibility is more impressive when you realize that a few, perhaps all of these losses on clay were when she was very young and not near her peak yet. It’s hard to say when Lenglen’s peak was because she almost never lost.

The French Championship prior to 1924 only allowed French players to play so it really was not a major tournament in those days. The real Clay Court Major prior to 1924 was the World Hardcourt Championships. Lenglen entered the World Hardcourt in 1914, 1921, 1922, and 1923. She won each of those tournaments of course.

Lenglen won the French Championships after they allowed foreign players to participate and won the tournament in 1925 and 1926.

Overall Lenglen entered six majors on clay and won all six. She probably would have won more majors overall including clay court majors if World War I had not intervened.

Lenglen won 83 tournaments in her career and won her last 171 matches! Yes, that is correct, 171 matches in a row!

Honorable Mentions

Nancy Richey

Richey was a great clay court player who won the first French Open in 1968. For her career according to sources she was 251-49 on clay for 83.67%.

Billie Jean King

King of course was a fantastic player who excelled on all surfaces. King won the French Open in 1972 over Evonne Goolagong 6-3 6-3 for her only win at the French Open. In King’s great career she won 76.21% of her matches on clay.

Evonne Goolagong

Evonne Goolagong is one of the smoothest movers I have ever seen in tennis. Her great mobility and wonderful groundstrokes helped in making her a fabulous clay court player. Goolagong won the French Open in 1971. She lost in the final to Billie Jean King the next year and reached the finals of the US Open on clay in 1975 and 1976, losing to the invincible Chris Evert.


So who is the greatest women’s clay court player of all time?

Clearly in the Open Era, it is Chris Evert.

Iconic champion Evert won 10 clay-court Grand Slam crowns, but she easily could have had more if she entered Roland Garros during her peak years from 1976 to 1978.

Prior to the Open Era, we have a few candidates.

There is Helen Wills, who won four French titles out of four attempts. She was, according to some sources, 89-2 on clay with one of the two losses to the Invincible Suzanne Lenglen.

The only other top candidate is of course Suzanne Lenglen, who was a mere 268-3 on clay. Lenglen won 77 clay court tournaments in her career.

Despite much of the evidence pointing toward Suzanne Lenglen, I would have to go with Chris Evert as the greatest women’s clay court player of all-time.

The unerring Evert was totally invincible at her peak and this was in an era when she competed against more great players from all over the world!

I truly believe however that Lenglen was a gifted champion of the highest level and if she played today, with current training and the current equipment, that she could be as great as any player in the game.

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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