While Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal often take the accolade of being three of the greatest tennis players of all time (argue amongst yourselves as to who’s number one), certain court surfaces can really bring out the best and worst in a tennis player’s game.
Pete Sampras, for example, was known the world over for his record on grass courts, with clay courts often being his downfall. In fact, out of his 14 Grand Slams, not a single one of them was on clay. The American great never even managed to reach a final at Roland Garros – the major clay court-based tournament.
Other players, like Gustavo Kuerten, were the opposite – limited on other surfaces, but brought to life on clay. This is mainly because each court surface has an entirely different style of play to it. Clay is often known for being a ‘slow’ surface, for example, as balls tend to bounce relatively high and more slowly, making it difficult for players to make effective returns. It tends to be a surface better-suited to consistent baseliners who have a strong defensive method of play.
Here are seven male players who not only understood how to master the art of playing on clay, but excelled at it, winning major after major after major.
1. Ivan Lendl
Before becoming Alexander Zverev’s coach last year, Ivan Lendl was one of the most dominant clay court players in existence. Winning 28 clay court titles, including three French Opens, the Czech-American was known for having a heavy topspin game and a particular prowess on the baseline, get on top of opponents from start to finish.
2. Roger Federer
Probably the greatest player to have graced the court in the history of tennis, Roger Federer continues to be a grand slam machine. The 37-year old’s record really speaks for itself – 1220 wins, 102 titles, 20 Grand Slams. He’s that good.
However, his record on clay hasn’t been quite as dominant as on other surfaces, and he has frequently come unstuck in the French Open by old-time nemesis Rafael Nadal. Coming runner up to him four times in a row before finally winning the tournament back in 2009, he is still yet to defeat him at Roland Garros, and has only beaten him twice on clay since 2005.
3. Gustavo Kuerten
As we’ve mentioned already, Kuerten’s game came to life on clay, and the Brazilian went on to win the French Open three times – in 1997, 2000 and 2001. It’s fair to say he was absolutely adored in France, with fans falling in love with his style of play, ability to draw a crowd and, of course, majestic hair.
He even drew a heart in the clay following his 2001 win, thanking the French fans for their continued love and support. Kuerten went on to retire with 14 career clay court titles to his name, and a 70% success rate on the surface.
4. Thomas Muster
It’s safe to say that Thomas Muster and clay went hand in hand – out of his 44 career titles, 40 of them came on the red dirt. His dominance was such that, during the years 1995 and 1996, he was the true conqueror of the surface, racking up a collective win-loss record of 111-5. In fact, nearly 70% of the Austrian’s total career wins were found to be on clay.
5. Guillermo Vilas
Second only to Nadal in terms of clay-court titles (49) and the number of matches won in a row (53), Guillermo Vilas was one of the most dominant players on the surface. However, he misses out when it comes to success in the French Open – despite reaching the final four times, he only managed to win the Grand Slam once, defeating Brian Gottfried in straight sets all the way back in 1977.
6. Björn Borg
The Swedish great Björn Berg currently holds the record of winning a Grand Slam with the least amount of games lost in history, only losing 32 games on route to his 1978 French Open title. He was by far and away the most dominant clay-court player of the 70s and early 80s, winning six French Opens – including five in a row.
He won another 24 other clay court titles before retiring at the somewhat premature age of 26, making him the greatest on the surface at the time. That was, at least, until a certain Spanish clay court magician came along…
7. Rafael Nadal
It didn’t take Rafael Nadal too long to overtake Björn Berg’s previous records. In fact, he is now only one clay court title away from actually doubling Berg’s haul of 30, with 59 clay-court titles currently to his name.
The undisputed greatest clay-court player of all time, twelve of those titles came from the French Open, with his lethal forehand and supreme defence tearing through opponent after opponent. He even went 81 matches unbeaten on the red dirt between 2005 and 2007, going to show just how good he is on the surface. Having won the French Open earlier this year as well, he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.