Congrats to @RafaelNadal , the greatest clay courter ever; enjoy ur big win!!!— Chris Evert (@ChrissieEvert) June 9, 2014
The tweet above was one of thousands of congratulatory messages that were sent to the man from Mallorca in the hours after he won his record ninth French Open title, in 2014. But the identity of this particular well-wisher—Chris Evert—meant that it had a little more meaning than most. When a woman who once went six years without losing on a surface calls you the “greatest ever” on that same surface, chances are you’ve earned the title.
But in giving the honor to Rafa, did Evert sell herself short?
Since 2012, when Nadal passed Bjorn Borg’s modern-day men’s record of six French Open titles, it has gone without saying that Rafa is the King of Clay. Along with his 72–2 record at Roland Garros, he won 81 straight matches on the surface from 2005 to 2007; he has won two other clay tournaments, Monte Carlo and Barcelona, 10 times; he has a men’s-record 52 clay titles in 60 finals; and his career record on dirt is 382–35, for a 91.61 winning percentage.
Still, in a dual-gender sport, the title of king has its limits. What about the women’s side of the crushed-brick aisle? That would be where Chrissie comes in. It may be hard for today’s Rafanatics to believe, but in the 1970s and ’80s the Queen of Clay was every bit as dominant on dirt. Anyone who indulges in a little theoretical tennis history will realize that it’s not so easy to say who is the true ruler of the red stuff.
So who did their thing better?
At 30, Nadal is still going strong. He could be on tour for another five years and end up winning a dozen French Opens. Even so, it won’t be easy for him to leave Evert behind. The American won seven French Open titles, the women’s record. But that still isn’t indicative of what she did on the surface. Here are five numbers that are: 10, 125, 6, 197 and 94.55.
The first—10—is how many major titles Evert won on clay. Along with her seven at Roland Garros, she won the U.S. Open from 1975 to ’77, when it was played on clay. She dropped a total of one set in those three Opens.
The second—125—is how many consecutive matches Evert won on clay. That’s 44 more than Rafa’s longest streak. She lost just eight sets, and 71 of the sets she won (27 percent) were 6–0.
The third—6—is how many years, from 1973 to ’79, her streak lasted. Yes, years. Rafa’s best streak lasted two years.
The fourth—197—is how many matches out of 198 on clay Evert won from ’73 to ’81. After her streak of 125 ended, in a third-set tiebreaker to Tracy Austin in the Italian Open semifinals in 1979, she bounced back to win 72 more in a row, until Hana Mandlikova beat her in the French Open semifinals in 1981.
The fifth—94.55—is Evert’s winning percentage on clay. She was 382–22. And you thought Rafa’s 382–35 was good.
Nadal’s nine French Opens stand alone, but there’s a good chance it wouldn’t if Evert had entered the tournament from 1976 to ’78. Like a lot of top pros during that time, she joined World Team Tennis instead. While it’s impossible to know how any player would have done in a tournament he or she didn’t play, in this case we can make a very confident guess.
Evert had won the French the two years before, in 1974 and ’75, and she would win it the two years after, in 1979 and ’80. She was ranked No. 1 virtually every week from ’76 to ’78. In those three years, she wasn’t just undefeated on clay; she didn’t lose a single set on the surface. From 1975 to ’77, she won the U.S. Open on clay.
During Evert’s absence from Paris, the champions were Sue Barker, Mima Jausovec and Virginia Ruzici. Evert’s career record against those players was 58–1. In 1980, she beat Ruzici in the French Open final, 6–0, 6–3; in the 1983 final, she beat Jausovec, 6–1, 6–2. Without the team tennis interruption, it’s impossible to imagine Evert with fewer than 10 French titles.
Does the ease with which Evert won in those days hurt her case? Today’s men’s game is deeper and more physically taxing than ever, and Nadal, unlike Evert, has had to play three-out-of-five-set matches at the French Open. He has also beaten two of the greatest players of all time, Federer and Novak Djokovic, 26 times in 35 combined meetings on clay.
Yet Evert also faced her share of legends. Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong were net-rushers who won 61 majors between them, but Evert mowed them down from the baseline. She was 12–2 against Goolagong and 10–3 against Navratilova on clay; it took Martina more than a decade to beat Chris on dirt. Navratilova’s second win, a 6–3, 6–1 stunner in the 1984 French Open final, may have been the most impressive win of her storied career. But Chris turned the tables around in the 1985 and ’86 French Open finals.
Evert played in an era of turfs, of specialists who owned their surfaces. Nadal plays at a time when the best players compete on all courts with equal facility. Yet both Rafa and Chrissie remain outliers. Their unrivaled dominance on clay is proof that the surface is uniquely suited to dynasties.
Winning on clay is rarely about who’s “on” or “off.” It rarely involves luck or a hot streak. Instead, it’s about who has the will—mentally and physically—to go beyond not just their opponent’s limits, but their own. Growing up on the surface, Evert and Nadal learned to go further than anyone else.
As for who went the furthest, I’d give a slight edge—so far—to Evert. As off-the-charts as Nadal’s nine Roland Garros titles are, Evert’s 125-match win streak is a show of even greater dominance, especially when you consider that more than a quarter of the sets she won were bagels. For the purposes of our what-if game, this year’s French Open will be revealing: can a rejuvenated Rafa tie Chrissie with 10 clay-court majors?
Evert won her last French Open in 1986, at age 31; it was her final Slam title, and a proper capstone to her career. Nadal will turn 31 during Roland Garros this spring, but he hasn’t won there since 2014. Can he draw inspiration from Evert’s last hurrah?
The only thing that’s certain is that every dynasty must decline, and Nadal’s will as well. Maybe that’s why Chrissie, in her tweet to Rafa, urged him—with three exclamation points—to savor his big win. She knows that, even for the Clay GOATs, utter dominance doesn’t last forever.
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