The clay court requires a very different skill set from that of the other surfaces. The transferability of skills between grass court and hard court play does not apply to that between any of these surfaces and clay. This explains the absence of any Rolland Garros wins by supposed masters of hard and/or grass. Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras - the list goes on. Who are some of the best specialists of this high-barriers-to-entry surface? Read on to find out!
Clay Titles: 20
Alongside Nadal, Mats Wilander is only one of two players in history to win the Roland Garros on their first try. In 1982, Wilander came into Roland Garros unseeded, but fired his way into the final, where he beat No. 3 and favorite Guillermo Vilas in four sets. Wilander won again in 1985, beating Ivan Lendl in the final. In 1988, he beat Henri Leconte to win his third French Open title. His two losses in the final in Paris were in 1983, to Yannick Noah, and in 1987 to Ivan Lendl.
Clay Titles: 28
Despite his playing style not being exactly perfectly fit for clay court dominance, his iron discipline is fitting for such. Ivan Lendl won 3 Rolland Garros titles. He reached his first French Open final was in 1981, when he faced Borg off to a five-set match, but lost 6-1 in the deciding set. His prowess on the clay courts of Rolland Garros did not cease with this defeat however, as between 1984 and 1987, Lendl went on to four straight French Open finals, winning three against John McEnroe, Swede Mikael Pernfors and Mats Wilander. However, in 1985, he lost to Wilander in the final in four sets. This record of four consecutive Rolland Garros finals is matched by Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Bjorn Borg for a long time until Nadal won the 2014 Rolland Garros title. Lendl's run to five French Open finals is an impressive feat when one considers how strong his contemporaries were on clay - they include Borg, Wilander, McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas and Yannick Noah!
Clay Titles: 30
Borg was the Nadal of his time - being the outlier with the most extreme forehand groundstrokes, which won him 5 Wimbledons despite conventional wisdom dictating that the Western forehand is useless on grass. Borg's incredible clay abilities is telling when one considers that Borg has six French Open titles despite playing the French Open eight times, which gives him a success percentage of 75.
Interestingly, his only two losses in the Rolland Garros championships, in 1973 and 1976, came against Italian Adrianno Panatta in the fourth round and the quarterfinals, respectively. Both losses were in four sets, and Panatta went on to win it in 1976. Between 1979 and 1981, Borg won 41 consecutive sets at the French Open, a record which no one (not even Nadal) has been able to match. It was both tragic and amazing that Bjorn Borg's career ended when he retired for the reason of burnout at the age of 26, leaving us tennis fans wondering what more could have come out of this great man.
Clay titles: 51
With a whooping 51 clay ATP titles, 10 of them being Rolland Garros titles, Nadal is no doubt the king of clay in tennis history, and we do not believe that anyone in the near of far future would surpass this record. Just for the purpose of comparison, Djokovic has 13 clay court titles and Federer has 11. Some of his other clay achievements/records include: having 31 consecutive match wins at the French Open; 81 straight clay court match-wins when the next best is 53; being the only person to win a Clay Slam (Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, French Open in one year), and winning 2 Rolland Garros championships without losing a set. If not for his loss to Robin Soderling in the 2009 Rolland Garros championship, he would have an inhuman 10-match winning streak at the French Open. By the way, he had tendonitis during that tournament - which goes to prove that he is unbeatable on clay in his normal form.
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