Titans of Clay

by: Peter Bodo | April 16, 2012

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Picby Pete Bodo

While most everyone is pre-occupied with tennis' latest version of the better mousetrap, the Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal rivalry, I'm also thinking about the historic milestones that the Spanish clay-court expert is approaching. He's presently tied with Bjorn Borg, each man having won six singles titles at what I like to think of as the World Championships on Clay, a.k.a. the French Open. 

If you insist on trying to figure out which guy has a better record at Roland Garros, good luck. Borg turned 25 during Roland Garros in 1981, the year at the end of which he abruptly—nay, shockingly—retired from tennis. Nadal will turn 26 during this year's tournament. Yes, in addition to everything else, the two greatest clay-court players of the Open era were fated to be born during what is always the second and most important week in Paris.

Nadal has lost just one match in his career at Roland Garros (his overall record: 45-1), and that fourth-round defeat inflicted to Robin Soderling in 2009 demands an asterisk because of the tendinitis (in both knees) that crippled Nadal. He gets that caveat because the injury was serious enough to make him unable to defend his title at Wimbledon, almost a full month later. It's not like Rafa moaned about his knees, and then dashed over to Queen's Club to begin practicing on grass.

Borg, by contrast, lost two matches (49-2), but it was to the same man. Italy's Adriano Panatta beat Borg in the fourth-round of 1974 and the quarterfinals of 1976. There's one other critical detail in Borg's record: His ill-advised decision to play World Team Tennis instead of Roland Garros in 1977. It's easy to ridicule or condemn him for that now, but Borg played his first Grand Slam event in 1972, just the fifth year of Open tennis. WTT lavished huge amounts of money on the players in an effort to challenge the very concept of the pro tour, which helps explain the demise of that effort as well as how Jimmy Connors and even Chris Evert chose the same path as Borg. In any event, Borg's chances at the French Open in '77 would have been comparable to those of Nadal at the same event two or three years ago. The odds on him winning would have been prohibitive.

It's fun parsing all these details and numbers, but Borg and Nadal had a lot in common in the big picture that also eludes statistical comparisons. It must tell us something about the clay-court game that Borg and Nadal, the two undisputed titans of clay, were both considered radical stylists when they popped onto the scene.

I remember sitting with Aussie legend John Newcombe during the World Championship Tennis finals in Dallas one year at the start of Borg's career, and asking him what he thought about this new "teen angel", Borg, who had qualified for the tournament. Newk replied that the Swedish prodigy was certainly great—too bad that arm troubles were almost sure to end his career before it really even began. It was a reference to the extreme, arm- and elbow-wrenching topspin used by Borg.

Newk wasn't the best source of analysis on that front, I suppose. He played the most meat-and-potatoes, flat, serve-and-volley game you can imagine. But his was a common belief shared by many because the degree of topspin Borg used on his forehand was, at the time, nothing less than astonishing. By then, players like Rod Laver and Ilie Nastase had brought the word "topspin" into the vocabulary, but those two legends generated spin mostly with a combination of wrist snap and slightly steeper path-of-swing. Borg added the extreme western grip and snap-swing to push stroke production to a different level.

Nadal's forehand is significantly different if just as lethal. Where Borg more or less covered the ball with his swing, Nadal has refined his own technique to the point where he eliminates that obvious smothering of the ball. He gets his racquet around the ball quickly and at an even more dramatic angle than did Borg, which enhances the spin if not the pace. Nadal's forehand, with that bolo-throw follow-through, is closer in nature to the kick serve than what we think of as the classic forehand drive.

On the service front, the men were similar. Both men made excellent use of the serve without entrusting their lives to it, which helps account for their success on grass. Borg's serve looked more natural, and his second serve was terrific—a tribute to the Swede's nerve as much as his technique. Nadal looks almost clumsy when he serves, and while he gets an edge as a lefty, it's hard to see how. There's none of that southpaw, bend-it-like McEnroe quality about it.

When you compare the two backhands, you get a greater inkling of Borg's genius. The stroke was nothing short of beautiful as well as waspishly effective. It isn't all that easy to create topspin with two hands on the racquet, but Borg did it masterfully. Nadal's backhand certainly is effective, although it failed—if that's the right word—at some key moments in his recent meeting with Djokovic in the Australian Open final.

Borg's backhand was a more effective rallying shot, not least because he wasn't looking as opportunistically to set up his forehand. He was content to rally furiously with it for as long as he needed, but that may also be a comment on how few players of his time could go on the offensive while rallying with him. It's different today, with the Andy Murrays and Novak Djokovics afoot.

You might call Nadal an evolutionary step for clay-court tennis. He is certainly less a representative of a new species, as Borg seemed to be, than one that has benefited from successful adaptation.

Some of the parallels here are almost spooky, as if Nadal were some funhouse-mirror version of Borg, but with two extra inches of height and a full 28 pounds more of fighting weight—pounds that in today's totally developed pro translate to greater weight of shot and power. I'd add stamina, if I weren't so sure that Borg's stamina was extraordinary in his or any other time. That Borg did not have to call on his reserves as often as has Nadal is a subject best left for another post I'll do in the near future, looking more closely at the opponents either man faced.

The similarities between the two titans of clay explain why a number of Nadal fans, or simply Nadal watchers, find it slightly ominous that Nadal has gradually become a bit of a malcontent, lashing out against the endless calendar of tennis events, the ranking system, and even his fellow-decision makers on the player council of the ATP—a body which he recently quit in disgust. If you know anything about Nadal, you must see how this was a very un-Nadal-like thing to do. 

A number of the elite half-dozen top players share some of Nadal's complaints, but each one seems to have a slightly different perspective. And Nadal's beefs have very little relevance for the ATP rank-and-file, a group that's all too happy for the income-earning opportunities provided by the loaded calendar. It's tempting to theorize that Nadal is somewhat isolated and alienated—just as Borg was in 1981. Nadal's well-documented battle with injuries, of which Borg had precious few, raises another little red flag.

But sitting in on a Nadal press conference tends to undermine alarmist notions. He may not be in the happiest phase of his career, but the toll of his complaints isn't attitude toward the immediate tasks at hand. Borg was secretive; Nadal is more open and expressive, which probably helps him work out his demons without poisoning his motivation.

Time will tell, but meanwhile there's this little matter of Nadal's historic opportunity to surpass Borg as the greatest of all clay-court titans.

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