Royalty On Clay -- Past And Present
by Ray Bowers
Where among the great clay-court warriors of tennis history should we rank today's clay artists Nadal and others? Here, we compare the achievements of the leading men's superstars in the evolution of modern clay-court tennis.
Our most convenient and also most meaningful yardstick is success at the world's foremost clay tournament, Roland Garros. Our scheme relies heavily on results there, but we also heed other events and broader considerations. We recognize that a triumph in 1930, for example, albeit distinguished, is of lesser magnitude than one in 2010, given today's multitude of highly trained and conditioned professional athletes who have emerged from the much larger tennis-playing population worldwide.
Our history is told chronologically, wherein we identify our top twelve honorees as we encounter them. Our second tier of twelve superstars, where the margins of separation are small, are labeled not by rank but as co-equal members of our Class AA. Our third, larger tier is our Class A.
We begin with the founding in Paris in 1925 of the French International tournament out of the closed, French National tournament. The French International, now known as Roland Garros, at once became the world's premier clay-court event. A few years later when the four great international tournaments became known as Slams, Garros was the only one played on clay. The other three Slams, all held in English-speaking countries, were held on grass, which was recognized as providing a different kind of bounce and therefore rewarding somewhat different playing skills.
The birth of Garros coincided with the emergence of the Four Musketeers -- four young French players who as a group captured every French International singles title until 1933 and meanwhile for six years successfully defended the Davis Cup on Garros clay. Two of the Musketeers were foremost in these achievements -- Henri Cochet, nicknamed the Ball-boy of Lyon, and Rene Lacoste, still a familiar name today for the crocodile-logo apparel that he designed and marketed. Lacoste was the steady, unaggressive player, willing and able to wait for an opponent's errors in patient exchanges. Cochet was more the attacker, skilled at striking the ball on the rise and moving forward. Cochet had the somewhat better record against Tilden and the other Americans in the Davis Cup finals at Garros, and Henri won the French International four times, Lacoste three. Here, we place Henri and Rene together in our Class AA, the second twelve in our order. We also include there European soft-baller Karel Kozeluh, the undisputed pro champion of the 1920's who was still as good as any on clay a decade later.
During the mid and later 1930's a young German player -- Gottfried von Cramm -- would twice win at Garros and also finish second there once. Gottfried's polished and forceful stroking would lift him to the top of the clay game, and close to the top on grass as well. But his tennis career was derailed upon his arrest by the Nazis in 1938. We place Cramm in our elite group at rank #12.
A slightly younger contemporary of Cramm was another German player, one who never competed as an amateur. Hans Nusslein had been ruled a professional and in 1931, at age 21, joined Tilden's European tour. Nusslein acquired instant reputation by pressing Bill in several matches and defeating Kozeluh. Hanne then became Tilden's main opponent in tours of the U.S. and Europe in 1932 and 1933. The younger player's strengths lay in stroking consistency from the baseline -- scarcely a favorable pattern for the fast indoor courts where the early pros mainly performed and where Tilden's more potent serving counted heavily. Nusslein did better on outdoor clay, winning the World Pro Championships in Berlin in 1933, for example, beating Tilden in a four-set final. Nusslein would win the U.S. Pro on Chicago clay in 1934, beating Ellsworth Vines in the semis and Kozeluh in the final. Later that year he lost a widely noted sanctioned match on Berlin clay against von Cramm, then the current Garros champion. Cramm won comfortably behind a clear edge in serving and power.
Nusslein remained among the top competing pros, who came to include Vines, Perry, and, in 1939, Budge. After the War Hanne became a master teacher of the game in Europe, renowned worldwide for his abilities. We add him to our Class AA list. He and Kozeluh, both relatively obscure in tennis history because of their absence from the Slams, were voted into International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006.
The power-hitting Donald Budge, of the devastating backhand, swept to history's first Grand Slam in 1938, which included Don's only Garros crown. When Budge then turned pro, his mantle as U.S. and Wimbledon champion went to fellow-American Riggs. Bobby's credentials on clay included three U.S. Clay-court crowns, 1936-1938 and a runner-up finish in his only appearance at Garros, in 1939. (The successes of Budge and Riggs at Garros and Wimbledon in 1938 and 1939 were tainted by Cramm's forced absence.) The two Americans then became rivals as pros in 1940-1942, Budge dominating, and again after the war, Riggs ahead. Budge was the power stroker, comfortable on all surfaces. Riggs's game, on the other hand, was fundamentally one of consistency and accuracy over power. Riggs as a pro learned to play aggressively against much larger opponents, contending well even in fast, indoor settings. As clay artists both are honored in our Class AA.
American Frank Parker, a solid baseliner, would win Garros in 1948 and 1949 while still an amateur, earning a place in our Class A. But by now, the all-out serve-and-volley style had become dominant among top players -- reflecting the use of grass in the three non-clay Slams and also the customary indoor play among the touring pros. With the early 1950's came the era of the Australians, broken mainly by the strong roles of American pros Jack Kramer and then Richard Gonzales and also Tony Trabert as both amateur and pro. The winners at Garros and at Il Foro Italico in Rome, also on red clay, became divided among European amateurs like Drobny, Davidson, Pietrangeli, and Santana, all of whom enter our Class A group, along with those Aussies and Americans able to mix their grass skills with what was needed to win on clay -- the likes of Lew Hoad and Trabert. Hoad and Trabert, along with pro superstar Gonzalez join our Class AA.
Smallish, teen-aged Australian star Ken Rosewall was remindful of Riggs in his fine movement and stroking in winning his first Garros in 1953. Ken turned pro several years later, and he would win the French Professional Championship in five of the six years that it was played on Garros clay, 1958-1962. That event regularly featured the recent Slam champions now turned pro. Later, Rosewall as a veteran pro would win the first French Open, played on Garros clay in 1968. We honor Rosewall as #3 in our clay-court hierarchy.
The parade of the Aussies intensified in the 1960's, bracketed by Rod Laver's Grand Slams in 1962 as an amateur and 1969 as a professional. (Rod was runner-up to Rosewall at Garros in the first Open Garros in 1968, and Rosewall was runner-up to Rod there in 1969.) We rank Laver just behind Rosewall in our scheme here, at #4.
The early 1970's were a time of jurisdictional squabbling as the sport adjusted to open play. A new talent came on the scene in 1974 with the Garros triumph of Bjorn Borg, just turned 18, whose severe and consistent baseline stroking was ideally suited to clay. Borg would win a total of six Garros crowns over an eight-year period, and his final overall W/L record at Garros was an astonishing 49-2.
The three-year period 1975-1977 was also the reign of green clay, or Har Tru, at U.S. Open, which provided a similar but somewhat faster bounce than European red clay. Most watchers agreed with the change away from grass at Forest Hills, feeling that serve-and-volley tennis had become stereotyped and that the emphasis on grass was alien from the sport most people played. Borg played in all three green-clay renditions at Forest Hills, reaching the final in 1976 when he lost to Connors.
For now, we award Borg a special place in our panorama. We crown him a super-elite nominee, to reappear later in this column when we make our final comparison in selecting the #1 honoree.
Jimmy Connors, whose energetic movement and relentless heavy hitting could be very effective on clay, never won a championship at Garros (W/L there, 40-13). He was denied entry in 1974, a year in which he won the other three Slams amid the aforementioned jurisdictional squabbles. But Jimmy won the U.S. Clay-court singles four times during 1974-1979, and in the three years of clay at U.S. Open, he won the tournament in 1976 and was runner-up in 1975 and 1977. He first faced Borg on clay in 1974 when Jimmy was 21 and Borg 25. Connors won that meeting, at Indianapolis, and the next two on clay as well, in the U.S. Open final in 1975 and semi-final in 1976. (Borg would win their three later clay-court meetings, all at Boca Raton.) Connors would win three of his four clay matches with John McEnroe and three of five with Vilas. Like most top American players, Connors became primarily a fast-court artist. At our #11, Connors is the only U.S. member of our elite twelve.
Also excelling during the clay interregnum in America was Argentine star Guillermo Vilas, who won the last Open played at Forest Hills, beating Jimmy in the final in the most important of their five career meetings. But the public had become uninspired at the moon-balling then widespread on the green clay, and U.S. Open changed to hard courts when the event moved to Flushing in 1978. Vilas also won Garros in 1977 and was runner-up there three times. He won a total or 632 matches on clay by ATP data -- far ahead of Connors at 197, and also ahead of Jimmy in his nearly 80% clay-court winning percentage. His 45 clay tournament victories is the most of any star in the Open Era, as listed by ATP's Greg Sharko. We make Vilas our #9.
Two superstars -- Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander -- each won the Garros crown three times in the seven-year period 1982-1988. Lendl, who also won at Rome twice and at U.S. Clay-courts once during the period, was a relentlessly hard and consistent hitter -- forehand, backhand, and also in serving. Ivan was willing to sustain rallies indefinitely while using his steady artillery to deny his opponent the initiative and force errors, doing so equally effectively on both clay and hard courts. Wilander lacked Lendl's pounding weight of shot but was also a baseliner, Wilander with greater topspin and a two-handed backhand. Both had excellent resolve. Lendl's W/L at Garros was 53-12; Wilander's was 47-9. Lendl was the older by four years and came out ahead in their career head-to-head clay-court count, 6-4.They split their two final-round meetings at Garros. Lendl also led in career winning percentage on clay (ATP data) by 81% to 76%. We place Lendl at #5, Wilander at #6.
NINETIES AND AFTER
The nineties featured runs by several successive clay champions, starting with the young American Jim Courier, who captured Garros in 1991 and 1992 with a mobile, relentless hitting assault reminiscent of Connors. Tall, Barcelona-born Sergi Bruguera won there the next two years, reflecting the emergence of an Armada of Spanish players skilled in heavy overspin deliveries from deep court. The decade's next king of clay was the unrelenting and super-determined Austrian hitter Thomas Muster, who reappeared after severe injury in a 1989 auto accident to win three Italian Opens and, in 1995, his only French Open. In that year he won 40 consecutive matches on clay. Muster's 40 Open-era clay tournament crowns is second to Vilas's total. Courier and Bruguera, who were the same age, dueled closely their head-to-head play. Bruguera won both their meetings at Garros but Courier won all three on clay elsewhere. Muster, who was three years older than both, won his first two but lost his last three clay-court meetings with Courier. Muster won six of eight clay meetings with Bruguera. We make Courier (W/L at Garros 40-9) and Bruguera (W/L 32-10) members of our Class AA, surely at the high end therein. Muster (W/L 32-13) is our #10 among the elites.
Late in the decade arrived a new star of brilliance -- a slender youth who brought a lively and varied, indeed good-natured tone to the clay wars. Unseeded Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil captured the 1997 Garros crown, beating Bruguera in the final round, and repeated with triumphs in 2000 and 2001. Kuerten thus became history's sixth Garros triple-winner. He also won Italy in 1999, Monte Carlo in 1999-2001, and the German in 2000. At W/L 36-7 at Garros, the erstwhile crowd-favorite Kuerten becomes our honoree #7.
When Andre Agassi arrived on the pro scene, it seemed logical that the precocious youth would win his first Slam at Garros, where his relentless power, control, and court mobility placed him in the tradition of Borg, Muster, and Courier. In the first half of his career Andre scored well in various clay tournaments and was a Davis Cup regular, often on clay where he usually won. He was Garros runner-up to Andres Gomez in 1990 at age 20 and to Courier in five sets in 1991. In 1992 he lost to Courier in the semis in four. But Agassi's Garros crown would not come until 1999 when he was age 29, after he had already won each of the other Slams at least once. He would never again go beyond the final eight at Garros, though he collected his only Masters Series clay-court crown in Rome in 2002. We place him in our clay-court Class AA.
The current Garros champion is Roger Federer, whose triumph in 2009 was his first at Garros, his 14th career Slam overall. Roger was also Garros runner-up the three preceding years, giving him an strong overall W/L record at that event of 39-10. While there is no skill in tennis where Roger does not excel, his greatest strengths are in attacking play, so he is therefore marked as first of all a fast-court player. He has lost nine of his eleven clay-court meetings with Nadal. Roger at age 20 beat Gustavo Kuerten at Hamburg in split sets but he lost two years later in their only other clay meeting, in straight sets at Garros. Now, at age 28, Roger's career book is not yet fully written, but it seems unlikely that his ultimate clay achievements can exceed Rafa's. We mark him at #8 for his success to date.
Nadal's achievements at age 23 are widely known. Paramount are his four Garros triumphs, obtained in his first four appearances there. There have also been an astonishing eleven clay-court crowns at the Masters-Series level. His clay-court success pattern was interrupted amid knee troubles in 2009 with a final-round loss to Federer at Rome and a fourth-round loss to Soderling at Garros. He will attain age 24 at Garros this year, so that there is much time for further achievement. His pounding forehand, his severely overspun, heavy backhand, and his superb mobility and counter-punching ability add up to a unique kind of clay-court excellence. His W/L at Garros to date is 31-1. In our survey, Nadal joins Bjorn Borg as our other prime candidate for top clay-court honors.
BORG AND NADAL
Have the magnificent achievements of Nadal already surpassed those of Bjorn Borg as all-time master of clay, or is there still more that Rafa must achieve? In short, who is our #1 megastar of clay-court tennis history?
The verdict is blurred. Rafa is two behind Bjorn in Garros triumphs to date (six vs. four), and he is also behind in total match wins at Garros, at 49 to 31, though ahead in W/L percentage. Borg's winning percentage in clay-court Slams is lowered by his losses in three tries at U.S. Open on green clay, however. Bjorn also leads in clay tournament crowns, 30-27. Both players were remarkably successful as clay-court stars at very young age. Bjorn essentially retired prior to age 26, thereby allowing Rafa another two years for matching Bjorn's same-age achievements. Nadal's consecutive match-win achievements, and his Masters-level triumphs especially including at Rome, improve his candidacy against Bjorn's.
A fifth and sixth Garros crown for Rafa would settle matters conclusively. But for now, we here place Bjorn slightly ahead, even as the expectation is strong that Rafa will soon equalize and indeed overtake in the comparison.
Recapping, here is our rank order of clay-court greatness, based on achievement to date, judged subjectively:
- Bjorn Borg
- Rafael Nadal
- Ken Rosewall
- Rod Laver
- Ivan Lendl
- Mats Wilander
- Gustavo Kuerten
- Roger Federer
- Guillermo Vilas
- Thomas Muster
- Jimmy Connors
- Gottfried von Cramm
The Class AA and Class A members are described in the Footnote. Also shown there are lists of players having won Garros and the Italian more than once.
CLAY SEASON 2010
The men's early-spring clay-court tournaments of 2010 are in the books. In early April Swiss star Wawrinka won at Casablanca, Argentinian Chela at Houston. Many of the superstars then joined the clay action at Monte Carlo, April 11-18, though Roddick and Federer -- the two leaders in the year-to-date race -- remained away.
Monte Carlo belonged to Spain's Armada, led by Rafael Nadal, who swept through the field without difficulty. At times Rafa's devastating clay-court game seemed at its very best ever, punishing opponents with relentless, heavy-topspin bombardment, directed to the corners and sides with almost total avoidance of error. The best resistance came in the semis, by Rafa's countryman David Ferrer, but whenever one of the dazzling Ferrer-Nadal exchanges extended beyond twenty strokes, which happened often, Nadal would become the eventual winner. Ferrer fought to the finish seemingly inexhaustibly, but early on, he seemed to acknowledge the hopelessness of his chances once any rally lengthened. It was Rafa's sixth consecutive Monte Carlo triumph, while the superiority of the full Spanish contingent, which produced both finalists, three of the four semi-finalists, and five of the final eight, was almost as impressive.
Then at Barcelona Nadal withdrew prior to the start, apparently to avoid the physical demands of playing through several consecutive weeks. Ferrer and Verdasco, who had reached the final at Monte Carlo, losing to Nadal, now met in the semis. Verdasco fell behind by a set and a break, but then stepped up his heavier attacking and reduced his misses. Fernando won, going away. Meanwhile Thiemo de Bakker, the slender, 6-4 21-year-old Netherlander defeated Jo Wilfried Tsonga on a cool and damp evening quarter-final, showing good movement and touch. But Soderling's thunder in Saturday-afternoon sunshine was too potent for Thiemo the next day.
Both finalists brought plenty of firepower on sunny Sunday in Barcelona, Verdasco beating Soderling in three sets. The difference was probably the Spaniard's superior ability in moving to the corners in answering Robin's rockets, which meant that Soderling on average had to risk more in order for his attacking to pay off. Thus Robin's attacking thrusts, though often deadly, also produced a high number of errors, while Verdasco's bolts carried safer arc over the net albeit with plenty of velocity.
The clay-court race for 2010 was now about a third completed. Here were the standings in 2010 clay-court points, showing four members of the Armada at the top. Nadal had been in second place after winning Monte Carlo but slipped to fourth by missing Barcelona. But with the big-reward events just ahead he remained well positioned to take the lead:
Points won on clay in 2010 to date
1. David Ferrer, 1,270
2. Fernando Verdasco, 1,190
3. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 1,025
4. Rafael Nadal, 1,000
(The above count includes points earned in the early-year Latin American clay circuit, in the current Garros Swing, and in those early-year Davis Cup ties played on clay.)
Roger Federer was still the official leader in the ATP rolling-12-month rankings (all surfaces), while Andy Roddick remained ahead in the year-to-date standings for calendar 2010. Nadal, with strong scores on both clay and nonclay, was second for the year-to-date, as shown here:
Points won in 2010 to date, overall
1. Andy Roddick, 2450
2. Rafael Nadal, 2230
3. Roger Federer, 2225
4. Fernando Verdasco, 1,845
The men's Italian Open is now starting, April 26, with a good entry field among the superstars aside from Roddick, who is staying in Hawaii. Rafa is the defending champion at Rome and clear favorite to win a record fifth crown there. If he produces the forceful and forcing game seen in Monte Carlo, it is hard to see him not prevailing. Both Rome and Madrid two weeks later will reward their champions with 1,000 points. Roland Garros, starting May 23, will bring 2,000.
Meanwhile the women's rankings were stable at the top during early April. Caroline Wozniacki won the tournament at Ponte Vedra and reached the final four at Charleston, where she hurt an ankle. Wozniacki's superiority over the other members of the youth brigade is becoming ever clearer behind her excellent mobility and avoidance of error, enhanced by her growing propensity for firm and attacking play. Caroline remains second in the WTA rolling-12-month rankings, after first-place Serena Williams, and fourth in the year-to-date race for 2010, not far behind the leaders (Venus Williams, Serena, and Justine Henin, in that order). Meanwhile Samantha Stosur, 26, won the Premier-level tournament in Charleston, ending April 18. Her surge to the cusp of the top ten has been convincing.
Fed Cup weekend, April 24-25, reduced the surviving four nations to two. An understrength Russian team led by Dementieva was narrowly beaten by an American squad which lacked either Williams sister. Dementieva won both her singles, but the Russkayas could not find another victory. Oudin and Mattek-Sands both won a difficult singles, helped by home-team crowd support in Birmingham. The deciding fifth match, the doubles, went to Huber-Mattek-Sands in a mismatch. Meanwhile in Foro Italico, Italy with Pennetta and Schivone blanked Czech Republic. The Fed Cup crown for 2010 will be decided in November, when U.S. hosts Italy.
Somehow the tennis year -- and indeed tennis history -- becomes more interesting with every week.
FOOTNOTE -- MORE ON THE CLAY RANKINGS
Our Class AA members, composing the second twelve in our rank order, are the following: Karel Kozeluh, Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste, Hans Nusslein, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Richard Gonzales, Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera, Andre Agassi.
Class A members include all past Garros champions and all multiple Rome champions not in Class AA or higher. These number about thirty individuals. Several other Class A members never won Rome more than once or Garros, including Sampras, Tilden, Orantes, McEnroe, Segura, Newcombe, and Becker.
The margins separating the individuals after our first twelve are extremely close, indeed almost indistinguishable. A carefully designed numerical scheme might provide a useful order of individuals within the classes.
Listed here are those having won Garros more than once:
Kuerten, Wilander, Lendl, Lacoste, each 3
Bruguera, Courier, Kodes, Laver, Rosewall, Emerson, Santana, Pietrangeli, Trabert, Drobny, Parker, von Cramm, each 2
Here are those having won Italian championships more than once:
Nadal, Courier, each 4
Drobny, Mulligan, each 3
Borg, Pietrangeli, Laver, Nastase, Gerulaitis, Gomez, Lendl, Muster, each 2
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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.