Nadal one, Borg two
Who exactly has been the greatest player on clay courts? It's really a two-horse race. Rafael Nadal has the numbers, especially the string of victories in the 1000 Masters tournaments, accumulated in a time far more competitive than any other. Bjorn Borg has the enigma of royalty, a mellow haze of the past that hovers protectively around him, immunising him to cruel calls of objective judgment. Both have equally dominant records against their peers, writes Kunal Diwan.
April is certainly not the cruelest month for Rafael Nadal. His run of wins in the harbinger of the European clay swing now tallies 67 over a period of six years, the last loss in the 30-day span being a distant let down to Igor Andreev in Valencia in 2005. The Majorcan's continuing and stupendous success on clay has stirred up the usual debate on the identity, if such an elusive thing exists, of the all-time greatest player on the red dirt in the Open era.
Asked last year after a fifth French Open title if he considered himself to be undisputed champion of the surface, Nadal smiled lopsidedly and said, “I am not so arrogant. Maybe that's for you to decide when I end my career.”
A year hence, and at 24 still a long way off retirement, Nadal's involuntary claim on that honour has only strengthened. In 2010, he lassoed in the three Masters titles played on clay — Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome — before rounding up the season with a fifth Roland Garros crown. In what would appear deadly déjŕ-vu to his rivals, Nadal's 2011 clay assault has begun with triumphs in Barcelona and Monte Carlo — his sixth and seventh titles respectively at the venues — from where he'll seek to extend his current winning streak on the surface beyond an already impressive 34 matches.
Nadal's returns on the red dirt are already legendary and include a record 81- match winning streak (achieved between 2005-07); a 186-6 win-loss ratio since 2005; and a career Reliability Index (see table) of 0.930 on the red dirt, which is streets ahead of peers and predecessors alike. The Spaniard is 31-2 in career clay court finals and brandishes 9-2 and 9-0 records against the other leading lights of his age — Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. His last loss on clay was to Robin Soderling in the 2009 French Open pre-quarters, with many believing the outcome to be a result of the mental turmoil Nadal was suffering from at the time over his parents' separation.
Can Mr. Biceps now safely be considered the ultimate dirt-baller, the sultan of the slide, an earth engraver etching his masterpieces in a 5-metre semicircle behind the baseline? The numbers are unquestionable, but arriving at a consensus on this one is not as easy as one would like to believe, especially when comparisons are to be made across eras.
Advances in racquet and string technology, changes to the ATP calendar and a complete overhaul of competitive ethos make the act of evaluating players from different generations a worthless one, and although indicators exist that lean opinion this way or that, a definitive answer remains out of reach of current human assimilatory powers.
Before the eras of Federer and Nadal connived to disturb the statistical stasis that many believed Pete Sampras' exit would plunge men's tennis in, the subject of surface-related supremacy was a no brainer. Rod Laver being accorded the status of the untouchable, unquantifiable high priest (in the same vein as the incomparable Sir Donald Bradman) who straddled the two eras of tennis, Sampras was indubitably the man to beat on grass and Bjorn Borg the chief custodian of the red earth.
That the Swedish Iceman has five Wimbledon crowns to go with six French Opens bears little on this discussion, which deals solely with the dominance of a player on clay courts. Still, Borg, whose blistering double-handed backhand and inextinguishable mental furnaces came to form the template of modern playmaking, signified in the 1970s and 80s what Nadal has come to represent now: a hard as nails competitor whose innate qualities interfered constructively with the nature of the clay court.
The prerequisites of success on clay differ markedly from what constitutes winning on faster courts. The higher, slower bounce reduces the frequency of what would be a winner on another surface, enforcing the deployment of top-spin, for which players (Nadal, for example, generates prodigious overspin with his high-arc forehand) rely on a full Western grip. Fewer winners mean longer rallies, accentuating the importance of physical and mental conditioning.
Movement on a clay court is also a different ball game, with exponents resorting to slipping and sliding on the loose surface as a means of approaching the ball. The crescent of footmarks that arches behind either baseline is where dirt-ballers feel most comfortable, foraying ahead only to salvage the drop shot — another weapon of surprise in the clay-courter's arsenal.
Borg ended his career at 27 with a 49-2 mark in Paris. His game was tweaked to perfection for the slower surface: consistently heavy top-spin on groundstrokes, a high level of fitness, the mentality of a mule and the pulse-rate of a zombie. He won four successive French Opens (1978-81) and boasted winning records against almost all his peers on clay, teaching the younger ones an ethic of work, a plane of existence that Ivan Lendl perfected to usher in the age of the professional. Borg beat Lendl all four times they met on clay, including in the 1981 French Open final.
Lendl, the man-machine who hissed menacingly at clueless opponents charging the net before passing them, was himself a three-time winner in Paris, his first title resulting from an improbable escape act after he was two sets and a break down to John McEnroe at the peak of his artistic, blasphemous powers. Lendl's game too was based on dominating from the back of the court and an Eastern European doggedness that stood him well during painfully prolonged encounters.
His inside-out forehand from the ad court and unbelievable physical conditioning brought him 29 titles on clay and a lot more elsewhere, his trust in racquet technology granting him pin-point power beyond what Borg and his generation, with their docile wooden weapons, could only have dreamed of just a decade back.
The lantern-jawed Guillermo Vilas, a defensive baseliner who could spring forward with little notice, was a contemporary of Borg, and holds the record for the number of titles (46) and the second best winning streak (53) on clay. The Argentine's spoils include the French Open and U.S. Open (then played on clay) in 1977, and three more finals in Paris, where he lost twice to Borg, against whom he had a dismal 2-11 record on clay. Vilas' success, the result of his stubborn ability to hit one more ball than his opponent, sparked a cult in Argentina of naming baby boys after him (Canas and Coria the obvious examples).
Vilas' last Roland Garros final (in 1982) ended in a loss to a young Mats Wilander, Borg's ostensible successor from Sweden, and almost as comfortable on clay as the original Iceman. Wilander and Lendl owned the French in the 1980s, with at least either of them featuring in the final seven years in succession (1982-88). The tabloids painted Wilander an ‘animal who liked only to eat, drink and sleep'. In truth, the Swede was as determined a dirt-baller as anybody, winning three Coup de Musketeers from five appearances in the final, as also titles at Flinders Park and Flushing Meadows.
The French domination of Lendl-Wilander dwindled in the late 80s giving way to the ascension of double title winners Jim Courier (likely the best American male player on clay, ahead of Andre Agassi) and the Spaniard Sergei Bruguera. Austrian Thomas Muster staged a miraculous recovery from a potentially fatal road accident in 1989 and returned to dominate the red earth, groaning and grunting his way to win 40 consecutive matches on clay in 1995, including the French Open, adopting a double-flanked attack. A couple of years later, eternal crowd favourite Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten — he of the peculiar serve — came out of nowhere to win the first of his three Paris titles in 1997. Kuerten's tailored playmaking rocketed him briefly to the top of the rankings.
So who exactly has been the greatest player on courts that trace their origin in crushed flowerpots and crimsoned kiln bricks? It's really a two-horse race. Nadal has the numbers, especially the string of victories in the 1000 Masters tournaments, accumulated in a time far more competitive than any other. He also has at his disposal a few years at the top of his game which will be utilised to further harass opponents on the red sludge. Borg has the enigma of royalty, a mellow haze of the past that hovers protectively around him, immunising him to cruel calls of objective judgment. Both have equally dominant records against their peers, perhaps the only yardstick that can be fearlessly deployed for a common assessment.
Last word to the frosty Swede, who is better placed to make a call than anybody else would ever be: “I trained a lot to be fitter than my rivals,” Borg said recently, “but the game has changed a lot since then and now more guys are capable of winning.” It is on that note, and that alone, that Nadal edges out his illustrious senior, 1.01 to 1.00.