Top 10 Clay Court Tennis Players Of The Open Era
The French Open has a certain mystique to it and much of that is down to the fact it is the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay. Whilst most players can handily transfer their skills across hard and grass courts, clay appears to flummox many top pros, but then work in the favour of others who can barely win a match elsewhere. Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles yet never even reached the final in Paris. Similarly, Boris Becker lifted all three other Grand Slams but never got past the semi-finals. However, there are some for which clay is the place to be – here are the 10 greatest players of the Open Era on a clay court.
10. Thomas Muster
The Austrian was actually labelled the King of Clay at one point, before Rafael Nadal ripped that moniker away from him. He may have only won one French Open title but the amount of clay court tournament wins he managed was incredible. A real specialist on the surface, he struggled elsewhere, never getting past the first round of Wimbledon but it was his clay court performances that took him to number one in the world in February 1996. Muster won the 1995 French Open, and both the Rome and Monte Carlo Masters three times. Over his career he played in 55 singles finals and won 44 of them. 45 of these finals were on clay and he won 40 of them, which is a supreme effort.
9. Serena Williams
Serena may not have been as dominant on clay as she has been on grass or hard courts, but her record is still better than almost anyone else, despite it not being her strongest suit. When three French Open titles looks like the weakest part of your Grand Slam record, that says more about a player’s unreal ability elsewhere rather than lack of ability on clay. Williams has not only won the singles title three times, but also the doubles twice. She has also picked up four Italian Open titles and two more at the Madrid Open (both on clay). She will not be remembered as a clay court specialist by any means, but that does not mean she is not a clay court great.
8. Ivan Lendl
The Czech great took over the mantle from Bjorn Borg as the dominant force on clay in the mid-1980s and won the French Open three times from 1984-87, losing in the final in ’85. Elsewhere he picked up two Monte Carlo Masters titles, two at the Rome Masters and another two in Hamburg. Lendl also had great success on the hard courts of the US and Australian Opens so he wasn’t exactly a clay court specialist, but still goes down as one of the greats on the surface.
7. Gustavo Kuerten
The Brazilian was the archetypal clay court specialist, with near enough every singles tournament success he ever achieved coming on the surface. Kuerten never reached the semi-finals of any other Grand Slam and yet he triumphed at the French Open three times – 1997, 2000 and 2001. Of his five Masters titles, four came on clay and in total 14 of his 20 singles tournament wins were on the same surface – as were seven of his eight doubles wins. Kuerten reached world number one in December 2000 almost entirely due to performances on clay and that’s why he makes it onto this list.
6. Margaret Court
The Australian great earned some of her vast clay court success before the Open Era but more than enough was achieved from 1968 onwards for her to deserve a spot on this list. Across singles, doubles and mixed doubles, Court played in 17 finals at the French Open, winning 13 of them, a sensational record by anyone’s standards. She was dominant across all surfaces, especially from 1969-73 when she won 11 of the 16 Grand Slam singles events she competed in – including three out of four at the French Open.
5. Justine Henin
In the mid-2000s Justine Henin seemed almost unbeatable on clay and her record backs that up. The Belgian won four French Open titles from 2003-07, becoming only the second woman to achieve three consecutives titles in the Open Era. She became the only player to win two titles without losing a single set in 2006-07 and won 40 consecutive sets from 2005-10 in Paris, another unparalleled achievement. Two titles in Charleston and three in Berlin further proved her dominance on clay and if it wasn’t for her premature retirement in 2008, when she was still world number one, we would be talking about lots more titles.
4. Bjorn Borg
The Swedish sensation entered the French Open eight times and won it on six occasions, finishing his career with a 96.08% win ratio at the tournament. Borg was near-unstoppable from 1974-1981 when he lost just once at the French Open (in the 1976 quarter-finals). He was also racking up clay court titles elsewhere during this period, winning the Monte Carlo Masters three times, the Pepsi Grand Slam on four consecutive occasions and the Swedish Open thrice among others. The Stockholm native had a relatively short pro career (ignoring his failed comeback in the early 90s) but he made an incredible impact whilst he was around, and notably on clay.
3. Steffi Graf
The German legend is not too far behind Evert in terms of achievement at the French Open, winning six titles, but she really took over from Evert as the woman to beat on clay in the late ‘80s. Her success in Paris spanned from 1987-1999 when she pulled off arguably the greatest Grand Slam victory of all time. At 30-years-old she became the first player to beat the top three ranked players and win a Grand Slam as she defeated Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis to win the title. She also won the German Open nine times and the Charleston Open four times – cementing her dominance on clay.
2. Chris Evert
The greatest female player ever to grave a clay court was Chris Evert who has won more French Open titles than any other woman. Evert competed in the French Open 13 times and only failed to make the semi-finals on one occasion, she won the title seven times from 1974-86. The American was stunning across all surfaces and was just as dominant elsewhere, especially at the US Open. Incredibly, she entered 56 Grand Slam tournaments and only failed to reach the semi-finals four times. One of the greatest players ever and certainly one of the greats on clay.
1. Rafael Nadal
There is no doubt who tops this list, no debate or argument. The King of Clay reigns supreme over his favourite surface and Rafael Nadal thoroughly deserves this number one slot. The Spaniard has won the French Open nine times – more than anyone else – and in 12 appearances at the tournament he has lost just three times. Nadal won nine out of 10 French Opens from 2005-2014. Rafa also holds the record for most wins at other clay court tournaments – the Monte Carlo Masters (10), Barcelona Open (10), Rome Masters (7) and Madrid Open (5). Dominant in an era of great players, Nadal is the greatest of all time on clay.