Commentary

Weighing Rafa's dominance on dirt

Originally Published: May 24, 2010
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Rafael Nadal may end up facing six different players in Paris over the next two weeks, but he has only one real opponent left on clay: Bjorn Borg.

Roger Federer lays claim to being the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) these days, but when it comes to the distinction of greatest of all time on clay (COAT?), the competition comes down to Nadal and Borg.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
AP Photo/Bertrand CombaldieuWith 28 career clay-court titles and a record of 169-6 on dirt since 2005, Rafael Nadal, 23, might already be tennis' greatest-ever player on the surface.

It's not on par with the eerie similarity in Pete Sampras' and Federer's records, but Nadal and Borg have established similar levels of dominance on the dirt. Borg won 30 clay-court titles before retiring at 26; Nadal, 23, has won 28. Nadal's won-lost record on clay since 2005 is 169-6 -- a winning percentage of 96.5 percent, pretty much identical to Borg's during his domination between 1976 and 1981.

Borg was defeated only twice at the French Open, both times by Adriano Panatta, winning a record six titles. Nadal, who won his first four outings in Paris, lost his first-ever match at the tournament when he fell to Robin Soderling in the fourth round last year.

Scan Borg's record, and what stands out is the scale of the beatdowns the Swede administered -- strings of 6-1 and 6-2 sets against many of the prominent players of the era. Nadal's record in best-of-five matches on clay is the stuff of legend, with the loss to Soderling representing his first-ever defeat in that format since he began playing tour events in his teens.

On the intangibles, too, they stand alone, with their fellow pros marveling at their mental strength and considering the two virtually unbeatable on their favorite surface.

"I don't see how people win against him," a player once said after a loss to Borg. "I don't see how they win games."

Earlier this month in Rome, Fernando Verdasco said of Nadal: "If he plays his best level on clay, then it is impossible to beat him."

"I think he's right," David Ferrer concurred.

Verdasco and Ferrer, incidentally, have been the two most successful players on clay behind Nadal this season.

A poll of players, officials and pundits published by French sporting newspaper L'Equipe on Monday saw Nadal edge out Borg, 163 points to 159.

But Nadal did miss out on one important vote -- that of his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal. Initially, it seemed that Uncle Toni had made Nadal his first choice. "No, no -- stop everything," he said suddenly. "I made a mistake." He had accidentally voted for Nadal while trying to put Borg in first place.

"Because I remember Borg," Toni Nadal explained in an interview with ESPN.com. "Borg was the best. … It's difficult to win a point against him.

"And maybe when I saw the matches of Rafael, I don't think Rafael is so good."

What would it take for his nephew to overtake Borg? A couple more French Opens, matching Borg's six.

"If he wins two more, then maybe he's better, but not at the moment," Toni said.

But many are willing to hand Nadal the mantle right now.

"Yes, I think he is the greatest of all time on clay," said former French Open champion Albert Costa, who believes that Nadal's sheer dominance over the field puts him at a level above the players who dominated during Costa's playing days.

"When Guga [three-time French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten] was at the top, it was not so clear -- he had [Carlos] Moya, [Alex] Corretja," said Costa, who added after some prompting, "OK, me as well -- I don't want to say."

Similarly, other names on the list of clay greats no longer compare. Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Kuerten all won three French Opens, but Nadal has already topped them with four. Guillermo Vilas held the record for consecutive wins on clay (with 53), until Nadal smashed it with 81 straight wins -- a record on any surface. Thomas Muster intimidated other players on clay almost as much as Nadal or Borg, but his period of dominance lasted less than two years. Guillermo Coria shined brightly for a couple of seasons, but he missed out on getting that all-important French Open crown.

2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero was the first Spaniard to get to No. 1, but was hit by a bout of chickenpox and rib injuries soon after and has not been able to regain his former heights.

And Nadal is only 23, with potentially many more years to win French Opens -- though it must be remembered that many of the recent clay greats have had early ends to their careers. Borg, burnt out, retired at 26. Kuerten was never the same again after hip surgery at 25, and Coria melted down soon after losing the French Open final in five sets at age 22. Nadal's physically punishing game has already seen his knees and feet break down at various times, including an injury absence at Wimbledon last year.

The quality of opposition he has faced -- and faced down -- is also a factor. In fact, Toni throws in an interesting choice for No. 3 on the all-time clay list -- Roger Federer, who placed seventh in L'Equipe's poll.

Either way, Nadal's dominant 10-2 record against Federer on dirt (not to mention 14-7 overall) bolsters his case -- if Federer is to be considered the greatest of all time, surely the man who beats him so regularly on clay must be the greatest of all time on that surface?

Over the next two weeks, Nadal has a chance to significantly bolster his case by achieving an unprecedented sweep of the spring clay season -- the three Masters events plus the French Open. Given the packed fields at each event and the sheer stamina required to pull it off against today's powerful, grinding players, it might prove to be the greatest feat anyone has ever pulled off on clay.

So the anticipation is high as Nadal prepares to kick off his French Open campaign against French wild card Gianni Mina on Tuesday. But Rafa, the man at the center of attention, prefers to sound the obligatory note of caution: "Am I the favorite to win at Roland Garros? I was last year, and I lost."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.