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Where does Novak Djokovic stand among the greatest claycourters of the Open Era? A look at the top 10 list

Bjorn Borg (L) and Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros 2021
Bjorn Borg (L) and Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros 2021
Rudra Biswas
ANALYST

Novak Djokovic made history on Sunday by lifting his second Roland Garros trophy, thus becoming the first man in the Open Era to win each Major at least twice. The Serb beat first-time Slam finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 for his 19th Major overall, and first in Paris since 2016.

Fans have long speculated how many French Opens Novak Djokovic might have won if he hadn't played in the same era as King of Clay Rafael Nadal. But by beating Nadal himself twice at Roland Garros, Djokovic has proven that irrespective of the number of trophies in his cabinet, he is one of the greatest claycourters of all time anyway.

On that note, here is a look at what we believe is the list of the 10 greatest claycourters in the Open Era:

10. Manuel Orantes

Manuel Orantes
Manuel Orantes

Clay wins: 569

Clay titles won: 31

Big clay titles won: 1972 Rome Masters, 1973 Louisville Open, 1973 U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships, 1975 Canada Masters, 1975 U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships, 1975 Monte Carlo Masters, 1975 US Open, 1977 U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships, 1977 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1978 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships

Roland Garros titles won: None

Manuel Orantes, who was active in the 1970s and the 1980s, was the direct successor to his namesake Manuel "Manolo" Santana - one of the earliest harbingers of Spanish success in tennis. But Orantes struggled to win big titles in the early part of his career, with the Italian Open in 1972 and the Grand Prix Super titles in Louisville and Indianapolis being his only major accolades.

Orantes turned his fortunes around at the 1975 US Open, winning his first (and only) Grand Slam title there. At that time the US Open was contested on clay, so the New York Slam was the left-hander's biggest title on the dirt.

Orantes won two more claycourt big titles - at Boston in 1977-88 - and also led Bjorn Borg by two sets to love in the 1974 French Open final before eventually finishing as the runner-up.

9. Thomas Muster

Thomas Muster
Thomas Muster

Clay wins: 426

Clay titles won: 40

Big clay titles won: 1995 French Open, 1988 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1990 Rome Masters, 1992 Monte Carlo Masters, 1995 Monte Carlo Masters, 1995 Rome Masters, 1996 Monte Carlo Masters, 1996 Rome Masters

Roland Garros titles won: 1

Thomas Muster was the first player since Bjorn Borg to be touted as the "King of Clay". Muster was one of the world's top players during his time, and was considered a contender at Roland Garros ever since making the last four there in 1990.

The Austrian suffered a car accident in 1989, which tore several ligaments in his left knee and required him to undergo a surgery. But he was able to get close to the top of the sport by 1993, before going on an absolute tear two years later.

Muster claimed 18 claycourt titles in 1994-95, which included his maiden Major victory in Paris. Notably, the lefty also won 24 consecutive claycourt finals, making him one of the winningiest players on the surface statistically.

8. Roger Federer

Roger Federer
Roger Federer

Clay wins: 223

Clay titles won: 11

Big clay titles won: 2009 French Open, 2002 Hamburg Masters, 2004 Hamburg Masters, 2005 Hamburg Masters, 2007 Hamburg Masters, 2009 Madrid Masters, 2012 Madrid Masters

Roland Garros titles won: 1

Roger Federer has had arguably the toughest opposition of all in his bid to win titles on clay, often facing Rafael Nadal at the other side of the net. Even though clay is Federer's worst surface by far, the Swiss maestro has shown remarkable consistency on the surface.

After winning his maiden Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer went on to feature in a Big claycourt final for 12 consecutive seasons. Only a knee injury derailed the Fed Express in 2016, by which time he had taken home seven big claycourt titles.

Roger Federer is considered by many to be the best claycourter of the early 2000s, and he can take pride in the fact that he was only stopped by the greatest claycourter in the history of tennis. The Swiss finished as the runner-up to Nadal in a whopping 11 finals on clay, and he finally tasted victory in Paris in 2009 when the Spaniard fell early to Robin Soderling.

7. Gustavo Kuerten

Gustavo Kuerten
Gustavo Kuerten

Clay wins: 181

Clay titles won: 14

Big clay titles won: 1997 French Open, 1999 Monte Carlo Masters, 1999 Rome Masters, 2000 Hamburg Masters, 2000 French Open, 2001 Monte Carlo Masters, 2001 French Open

Roland Garros titles won: 3

Gustavo Kuerten first broke through on the circuit in 1997, reigning supreme in his first ever pro final at Roland Garros - that too as an unseeded player. Kuerten made an entry into the top echelons of the rankings after clinching his maiden Major title, and he became the World No. 1 in 2000 on the back of his second triumph in Paris.

However, injuries started plaguing Kuerten after he won his third Roland Garros title in 2001. The Brazilian soon had to undergo two hip surgeries, and he retired in 2008 after several failed attempts at a comeback.

Although the Brazilian won three Roland Garros titles, it is pertinent to note that he wasn't too consistent on clay. Kuerten accumulated a relatively underwhelming 70% win-loss record on the surface.

6. Guilllermo Vilas

Rafael Nadal (L) and Guillermo Vilas
Rafael Nadal (L) and Guillermo Vilas

Clay wins: 681

Clay titles won: 49

Big clay titles won: 1974 Canada Masters, 1974 Louisville Open, 1974 Aryamehr Cup, 1975 Washington Star International, 1975 Louisville Open, 1976 Monte Carlo Masters, 1976 Canada Masters, 1977 Louisville Open, 1977 French Open, 1978 Hamburg Masters, 1980 Rome Masters, 1982 Monte Carlo Masters, 1982 Madrid Grand Prix Super

Roland Garros titles won: 1

Guillermo Vilas was, along with Bjorn Borg, one of the world's top claycourters in the late 70s. Although Vilas was never recognized as the World No. 1 by the ATP computer rankings, several publications rated the Argentine as their No. 1 in 1977 - the year Vilas won his maiden Roland Garros title.

During Vilas' heyday there were several independent tours headed by pre-eminent tennis figures, rather than a singular world tour. That meant the pros played more matches every season, and also that some tournaments were less competitive than they are now.

While the Argentine's tally of match-wins on clay (681) is by far the most in the Open Era, there is an argument to be made that the Argentine buffed up his haul by playing a lot of lowly claycourt tournaments.

Having said that, Vilas repeatedly defeated the greatest claycourters of his time, including Borg, en route to his biggest triumphs on the surface. The Argentine, nicknamed 'Willy Vilas' by his peers, also held the record for most consecutive matches won on clay (52) until his record was surpassed by none other than Rafael Nadal in 2006.

5. Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic

Clay wins: 227

Clay titles won: 17

Big clay titles won: 2016 French Open, 2021 French Open, 2008 Rome Masters, 2011 Madrid Open, 2011 Rome Masters, 2013 Monte Carlo Masters, 2014 Rome Masters, 2015 Monte Carlo Masters, 2015 Rome Masters, 2016 Madrid Masters, 2019 Madrid Masters, 2020 Rome Masters

Roland Garros titles won: 2

Novak Djokovic might be the only player in the Open Era to be in the top 5 list of players on every surface (hardcourt, grass, clay); he has redefined what it means to be versatile. The Serb reigned supreme at this year's French Open against all odds, thereby becoming the only player in the Open Era to win all four of the Grand Slams at least twice.

Djokovic has also won every big title (recognized by the ATP) on clay, but the epitaph of the 34-year-old's success on the surface is the fact that he has beaten Rafael Nadal in a number of high-profile claycourt matches. In 2011, Djokovic went on a 43-match winning streak at the start of the season, which included convincing victories over Nadal in the Rome and Madrid finals.

Although the Serb has been denied by Nadal at Roland Garros seven times in his career, he has usually given the Spaniard a tough fight even on his favorite surface. Novak Djokovic has accounted for two of Rafael Nadal's three losses in Paris, and earlier this week he became the first player to defeat the King of Clay in the semifinal or final of the tournament.

4. Mats Wilander

Mats Wilander
Mats Wilander

Clay wins: 263

Clay titles won: 20

Big clay titles won: 1982 French Open, 1985 French Open, 1988 French Open, 1983 Monte Carlo Masters, 1985 U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships, 1985 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1985 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1987 Rome Masters

Roland Garros titles won: 3

Mats Wilander's tennis breakthrough, just like Gustavo Kuerten's, came out of nowhere in 1982 as he went all the way in Paris as an unseeded player. He then went on to win the French Open two more times - in 1985 and 1988.

But just like Kuerten, the Swede was never quite a consistently dominant force on clay despite his tally of three Roland Garros titles.

In addition to winning the French Open on his first attempt, Mats Wilander is also known for winning multiple Major titles on each of the three surfaces (hardcourt, grass, clay). But the Swede was seemingly burnt out by the time he reached his physical prime, and he was unable to compete at his full potential in the second half of his career.

It is pertinent to note that it took Wilander eight big title triumphs on his best surface before he finally became the World No. 1 in 1988.

3. Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl
Ivan Lendl

Clay wins: 329

Clay titles won: 28

Big clay titles won: 1984 French Open, 1986 French Open, 1987 French Open, 1982 WCT Tournament of Champions, 1985 Monte Carlo Masters, 1985 WCT Tournament of Champions, 1985 U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships, 1986 Rome Masters, 1988 Monte Carlo Masters, 1988 Rome Masters, 1989 Hamburg Masters, 1989 Eagle Tournament of Champions

Roland Garros titles won: 3

Ivan Lendl is often cited as the father of power baseline tennis. The Czech used an aggressive style of play on clay, achieving rich dividends in the process.

In 1984, Lendl became only the second player ever to win the French Open (first being Borg) from two sets to love down. And that was a sign of things to come from the Czech, who was also infamously known as The Terminator back then.

Lendl dominated the main circuit in a way that was never seen before, monopolizing the big events on both hardcourt and clay. The aggressive baseliner has notably won the French Open and all three of the claycourt Masters, finding exclusive company with the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas.

It is also pertinent to note that although Lendl has won nine big claycourt titles aside from Roland Garros, many of the tournaments won by the Czech are defunct now as they were organized by World Championship Tennis (WCT) - which ceased to exist in 1990.

2. Bjorn Borg

Bjorn Borg at the French Open Tennis Championship
Bjorn Borg at the French Open Tennis Championship

Clay wins: 285

Clay titles won: 32

Big clay titles won: 1974 French Open, 1975 French Open, 1978 French Open, 1979 French Open, 1980 French Open, 1981 French Open, 1974 Rome Masters, 1974 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1975 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1976 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships, 1977 Monte Carlo Masters, 1978 Rome Masters, 1979 Monte Carlo Masters, 1980 Monte Carlo Masters

Roland Garros titles won: 6

Bjorn Borg left a long-lasting impression on tennis history with his claycourt achievements. Borg was the first player to win more than five titles at a Slam in the Open Era, and ultimately finished with six French Open titles (and five Wimbledon titles as well).

The Swede also notably won four consecutive French Open titles in 1978-81, a feat that was only matched several decades later by Rafael Nadal. Borg also never lost a final in Paris, much like Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

It is also pertinent to note that Borg stands in third place for most consecutive wins on clay after Nadal and Vilas, which is not surprising when you consider his exceptional win rate of over 86% on the surface. However, as the old adage goes: everything has a price.

Borg's exploits on clay eventually caused severe burnout, forcing the Swede to retire from the sport at the age of 26.

1. Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal

Clay wins: 459

Clay titles won: 62

Big clay titles won: 2005 French Open, 2006 French Open, 2007 French Open, 2008 French Open, 2010 French Open, 2011 French Open, 2012 French Open, 2013 French Open, 2014 French Open, 2017 French Open, 2018 French Open, 2019 French Open, 2020 French Open, 2005 Monte Carlo Masters, 2005 Rome Masters, 2006 Monte Carlo Masters, 2006 Rome Masters, 2007 Monte Carlo Masters, 2007 Rome Masters, 2008 Monte Carlo Masters, 2008 Hamburg Masters, 2009 Monte Carlo Masters, 2009 Rome Masters, 2010 Monte Carlo Masters, 2010 Rome Masters, 2011 Monte Carlo Masters, 2012 Monte Carlo Masters, 2012 Rome Masters, 2013 Madrid Masters, 2013 Rome Masters, 2014 Madrid Masters, 2016 Monte Carlo Masters, 2017 Monte Carlo Masters, 2017 Madrid Masters, 2018 Monte Carlo Masters, 2018 Rome Masters, 2019 Rome Masters, 2021 Rome Masters

Roland Garros titles won: 13

The less said here, the better. Rafael Nadal has by far been the most successful player on clay, taking home a whopping 13 Roland Garros titles. The Spaniard is also undefeated in French Open finals, and has an overall record of 62-8 in claycourt finals.

Although there are many players who have won Roland Garros and all three of the claycourt Masters, Nadal stands alone in having won all four events in the same season (in 2010).

Rafael Nadal owns the longest winning streak on clay in the Open Era, having won 81 consecutive matches on the surface from April 2005 to May 2007. The Spaniard is also the only player in the Open era to have won four Grand Slams without the loss of a single set, and all four of his victories came on the Parisian terre battue (2008, 2010, 2017, 2020).

Perhaps what makes Nadal's achievements even more special is the fact that he had to beat two of the best claycourters in the Open Era along the way - Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal was given a tough fight by the duo throughout his reign over Paris, but managed to have the last laugh as he bagelled both Federer and Djokovic in the championship match - in 2008 and 2020 respectively.


Edited by Musab Abid
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