Who's the Clay Goat?

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This was one of what must have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of congratulatory messages that this year’s men’s French Open champion has received since Sunday. But the identity of the well-wisher meant that it had a little more meaning than most. This was how one all-time clay great, Chris Evert, salutes another. When she calls you the “greatest clay courter ever,” you can feel like you've earned the title. Evert is certainly the only person who, when she says that of Rafa, might just be selling herself short.

For the last couple of years, it has gone without saying that Nadal is the best of all time on dirt. Nine French Open titles, a 66-1 record at Roland Garros, an 81-match clay-court win streak, 45 titles in 53 dirt finals, and a 318-24 record on the surface gives you a pretty good claim to the title of King of Clay. 

But the word “King” has its limits—what about the women’s side of the clay-court aisle? That would be where Evert comes in. As hard as it may be to remember now, the Queen of Clay was every bit as dominant on the surface as Nadal. And if you’re willing to play the theoretical tennis history game for a minute or two, maybe even more so.

Evert won seven French Open titles, the women’s record, and the all-time record until Nadal broke it in 2013. But even that number isn’t indicative of what she did on the surface. Here are three numbers that do: 125, 6, and 189. 

The first—125—is how many consecutive matches she won on clay during the 1970s; that’s 44 more than Rafa’s longest streak. She lost eight sets in those 125 matches.

The second—6—is how many years, from 1973 to ’79, the streak lasted. Yes, years.

The third—189—is how many matches out of 190 on clay that Evert ended up winning from ’73 to ’81. After her streak of 125 ended, in a third-set tiebreaker to Tracy Austin in the Italian Open semis in ’79 (Chris had a 4-2 lead in the third), she bounced back to win 64 more matches in a row, until Hana Mandlikova beat her in the French semifinals in ’81. 

Nadal’s nine French Opens stands alone, but there’s a good chance it wouldn’t if Evert had played the tournament from 1976 to ’78. In those three years, which came before anyone kept track of how many Grand Slams a player had won, Evert, like a lot of her fellow top pros, chose to play World Team Tennis instead. (Her decision not to play WTT after that was one reason for the U.S.-based league’s demise; that's how big Chrissie was back in the day.) 

It’s impossible to say how Evert would have done at Roland Garros at those tournaments, but the odds are she would have won them all. She had won the French the two years before, in 1974 (see below) and ’75, and would win it the two years after, in ’79 and ’80. She was ranked No. 1 virtually every week from ’76 to ’78, and was undefeated on clay during that time—these were the peak seasons of her career. In her absence, the champions in Paris were Sue Barker, Mima Jausovec, and Virginia Ruzici. Evert’s collective career record against those three players was 58-1. In 1980, she beat Ruzici in the French final, 6-0, 6-3; in the 1983 final, she beat Jausovec, 6-1, 6-2. Ten French titles was Chrissie’s proper haul.

Yet those names and records would also seem to hurt Evert’s clay-goat case, because of the level of competition she faced compared to Nadal. Chris won her French finals over Olga Morozova, Martina Navratilova (three times), Wendy Turnbull, Ruzici, and Jausovec. Nadal has beaten Mariano Puerta, Roger Federer (four times, including 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in 2008; see below), Robin Soderling, Novak Djokovic (two times), and David Ferrer. The advantage clearly goes to Nadal there. 

Of course, you can’t blame Evert for who was on the other side of the net. Her competition was weaker in part because the other great women players of the 1970s—Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, Virginia Wade—were still net-rushers, and not clay-courters. In this sense, Evert, with her two-handed backhand and baseline-hugging style, dominated on dirt because she was a pioneer on it. When she started to lose on clay, it was to double-handed disciples like Austin and Andrea Jaeger, who beat her in the semis in Paris in 1982. When it comes to the competition question, you might say Evert is penalized for being ahead of her time.

Nadal plays in an era when clay-court tennis and the French Open are no longer on the sport's periphery. The best men and women in the world compete on all surfaces with equal facility now. Yet both Rafa and Chrissie remain outliers, and proof that clay is uniquely suited to dynasties. It’s harder on dirt for a lower-ranked opponent to get on a hot streak, especially with the serve, and knock off a top player than it is on any other surface.

Yet every dynasty must eventually decline. Do Chris’ later years hold any clues for how Rafa’s may play out? Starting when she was 24, Evert began to lose to younger players—Austin, Mandlikova, Jaeger. Then a contemporary rival, Navratilova, surged ahead of her in Paris, before Chris turned the tables back around on Martina with her last two great triumphs, in the 1985 and ’86 French finals. Evert was 31 when she won in ’86; it was her last major title.

Nadal turned 28 at this year’s French Open. In 2011, he lost twice on clay to one of his closest rivals, Novak Djokovic. This year he had perhaps his worst clay season, going out to Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, and Djokovic, and nearly losing to Kei Nishikori. Yet he remains the master of the three-out-of-five-setter in Paris. 

The only thing that Evert’s later years tells us is this: Decline happens to the best, and it will happen to Nadal someday as well. Maybe that’s why Chrissie, in her tweet this week, told Rafa to enjoy his big win, with three exclamation points. She knows that, even for clay-goats, utter dominance doesn’t last forever.

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