Rafael Nadal or Bjorn Borg: Who is the King of Clay?

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Updated: June 14, 2012
Bjorn_Borg_Rafael_Nadal

The festivities at Roland Garros are at last complete. An extra day was required due to rain, but I, for one, didn’t complain about seeing some more grand slam tennis, especially a Nadal-Djokovic final.

The French Open finished in predictable fashion on the men’s side with Rafael Nadal hoisting his 7th French open trophy. With the victory, Nadal has now won more singles tournaments at RG than any other man since the tournament was opened to the tennis public in 1924. Before that year only club members were allowed to participate, and Max Decugis managed to win eight titles under those rules.  However most of the tennis world do not recognize his record, which makes Nadal the most decorated man at the French Open, but can he be declared the best all-time on clay court player?

Only one other man, in my opinion, is in the same conversation as Nadal, and that is the great Bjorn Borg. Borg won six French Open titles and a total of 30 clay court tournaments throughout his career. These numbers alone are amazing, however Nadal’s numbers are better as he just won his 7th French and has won 36 clay court tournaments. Both Nadal and Borg only lost to one man at the French in eight career tournaments; Nadal lost to Robin Soderling and Borg lost to Adriano Panatta, twice.

The statistics slightly favour Nadal when it comes to performance on clay, however there are other factors to consider. The first of these is that Borg retired after his eighth French Open at the age of 26, the same age as Nadal is now. Nadal is likely going to continue his career, and whether he will maintain this level of dominance is uncertain as his style of play will become increasingly more demanding with age. The same could be said for Borg.  Borg walked away from the  game with the intention of taking a hiatus, only to return to the ATP tour.  However, the ATP said that if he did he would not automatically qualify for grand slams.  Having made more money than anyone in tennis at that time, Borg decided to retire.  If we were to add another five years to Borg and observe Nadal’s next five years, it would be an interesting comparison. Obviously one cannot consider Borg’s brief comeback in the early 90′s, as he was a shell of his former self.

Another small consideration is that Borg missed the 1977 French open due to commitments to World Team Tennis, which very well could have resulted in his 7th title – afterall, he had won four straight French Opens after that year so it is a very realistic situation that Borg could have been the champ in 1977 as well.

The level of competition is hard to assess, and therefore a comparison is difficult.  Basically there are three men consistently relevant in men’s grand slam tennis right now: Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. During Borg’s time there were names like Jimmy Connors, Ille Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and John McEnore, all hall-of-famers.  We can conclude that both Nadal and Borg played in highly competitive eras. Could Borg have beaten Federer or could Nadal have beaten Connors or Vilas? These are unfortunately unanswerable questions.

A major factor that made Borg so incredible was his style of play. Borg revolutionized the game by utilizing the two-handed backhand and living at the baseline, especially on second serves. Borg would usually stick to the serve-and-volley style on his first serve and then use the baseline on a slower second serve. This style was relatively underused in the game and there wasn’t much of a blueprint at the time for executing it. When a player can perform a shot that no other player can perform nearly as well, it makes that player something truly special. A two-handed backhand allows a player to generate enough power to hit winners from far back on both sides of their body, which is absolute gold on clay and is one of the main reasons for Borg’s success on the red surface.

Nadal’s advantage came with the fact that he is a left-handed player, a natural gift that makes a player more difficult to read, especially on clay where angles are so important. If Nadal were a common righty would he be as dominant? With regards to conditioning, both Nadal and Borg stand together at the top of the mountain. Many players have been left scratching their heads having thought they hit a winner only to have it come back just as hard and fast. Marat Safin referred to Nadal as a “rabbit” and John McEnroe likened Borg to Superman – the word “tired” is simply not in either player’s vocabulary.

Having never seen Borg play live, I can only revert to the old footage of his matches to offer a comparison to the many great Nadal matches I have had the pleasure of watching. For me, and I’m sure most tennis fans my age or younger, the scale tips towards Rafa based on the stats and generational bias.  Along with Roger Federer, both Borg and Nadal rank as my favorite players of all time. Their performances mixed with their class and calmness form many of my most cherished tennis memories, both live and recorded.  So, for this debate I am willing to award two crowns for the two very deserving Kings of Clay.

… and that is the Last Word.

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