Top 5 Clay Court Players Of All Time

Top 5 male clay court tennis players of all time 

May 8, 2024

In 1878, the Renshaw brothers, who claimed many Wimbledon titles, were the first to discover the clay court in tennis. Living in a small town between Cannes and Nice, they found the idea to crush a great amount of flower pots, turn them first into clay and then to a powder that could be used to slide on.

In addition to flower pots, they later discovered that they would have the same results by crushing red bricks and turning them to a smoother powder. Thus, clay court tennis was born, and the success was so huge that most European countries adopted the idea right away.

With the French Open just around the corner, I’ve taken this opportunity to look at some of tennis’ greatest clay court male players of all time. 

With clay considered the most physically-demanding surface to play on, a combination of skill, fitness, strength, and speed are key to all of these players’ successes.

The criteria for my rankings are the following: number of French Open finals reached; French Open titles won; titles won on clay; strong or weak contemporaries. 

#5 Mats Wilander

Mats Wilander is one of only two players to win the French Open in his first attempt. In 1982, Wilander came into Roland-Garros unseeded, blitzed his way to the final, and dispatched No. 3 seed Guillermo Vilas in four sets in the final to win his first French Open title. He went on to win two more French Opens as well as making the final on two more occasions. 

The Swede won his second title in 1985, overcoming Ivan Lendl in the final, before beating Frenchman Henri Leconte in 1988 to win his third French Open title.

Wilander’s two losses in the final came in 1983: to one-time French Open winner Yannick Noah of France, and in 1987 to Lendl, who avenged his 1985 final loss.

Wilander had a storied career, especially taking into account his 20 clay court titles, which included his three French Open wins. Thus, it is fair to say that his presence in the International Tennis Federation Hall of Fame is in no small part due to his success on clay.

#4 Ivan Lendl 

Despite a short stint at the French Open, Ivan Lendl was one of the most consistent performers at the marquee French clay court tournament, where he reached five finals, winning three of them in a seven-year run between 1981 and 1987.

Nicknamed the “Terminator”, Lendl’s ultimate weapon was his ferocious forehand that allowed him to dictate play from the back of the court. Despite retiring in 1994, Lendl still has the joint-third most French Open titles in the Open era, two of them having come in back-to-back seasons in 1986 and 1987.

In total, Lendl won 27 titles on clay in his career, finishing it with a win rate of 81% on clay. 

Also read: French Open (Roland-Garros) 2024 Sponsors

#3 Novak Djokovic 

As arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport, there’s not a single top five list that Novak Djokovic wouldn’t be a part of given his success on almost every surface.

The Serb, playing in an era dominated by Rafael Nadal, has still managed to win 19 clay court titles. However, the majority of these wins have come in ATP 1000 tournaments, with the bulk of them in Rome. The current World No. 1 has six Italian Open titles, three at the Madrid Open, and two in the Monte-Carlo Masters, taking him to second behind Nadal (26) with 11 ATP 1000 titles on clay. 

With three French Open wins and four finals appearances, in an era when they were not so easy to come by, and an 80% career win rate on clay, Djokovic is certainly worthy of his place on this list.

#2 Björn Borg 

What Björn Borg achieved in his short career is simply beyond extraordinary. Before the modern greats like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal truly demonstrated the level of sheer brilliance and unmatched consistency, Borg was the first player to dominate the world of tennis with his incredible fitness, speed, and powerful shot-making. 

Borg was incredibly dominant at the French Open, entering the tournament seven times between 1974 and 1981. He won six out of the seven titles with a 96% win rate, losing just two of his 51 matches on the Paris clay.

The Swede was equally dominant on other clay surfaces around the globe, winning a total of 32 clay court titles in his career. Borg finished his career with an incredible win rate of just over 86% on clay.

#1 Rafael Nadal 

Top male clay court tennis player of all time #1 Rafael Nadal

There’s a reason why Rafael Nadal is given the nickname ‘The King of Clay’. Nadal has won a record 14 French Open titles, and the 37-year-old hasn’t necessarily played his final tournament yet.

The Spaniard’s dominance at the French Open started with his first win in 2005. Nadal has entered the French Open 18 times, with a 100% win rate in 14 finals. He currently holds a record of 112 wins, 3 losses, and one withdrawal from the tournament, making it a freak occurrence for someone else to lift the trophy in the last 18 years.

Nadal has set multiple records on clay throughout his career. He is the only player to have won the clay slam, winning the Monte Carlo Masters and the Madrid, Italian, and French Opens in a calendar year in 2010. He also broke records that had stood since 1877, winning 26 clay court titles without losing a set as well as having 10 successful title defences at the same major event. Moreover, his incredible streak of 81 consecutive victories on clay is also one that is unlikely to be matched any time soon. 

So far in his career, Nadal has won 63 career titles on clay, 11 of those having come at the Monte-Carlo Masters, where he won eight years in a row from 2005 to 2012. Nadal has also hit double figures at the Italian Open with 10 titles between 2005 and 2021. His clay court career is the most impressive display of dominance on a single surface, with him currently having a 91.2% win rate and a record of 477 wins to 46 losses on clay.

Rahul Saha

An engineer taking the road less taken. I love writing, live and breathe football, and am always up for a tactical conversation.

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