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Sunday, June 5, 2011
Time to stir up the master-of-dirt debate

By Peter Bodo

PARIS -- Now that Rafael Nadal has equaled Bjorn Borg's record by winning the French Open six times, the conversation will begin in earnest: Which one deserves to be ranked the greatest clay-court player of all time?

The fact we can officially have this conversation now, when Nadal has just turned 25, is remarkable. But one of the things we learned from Borg himself is that longevity in this game can't be assumed. Some of the most well-connected Nadal watchers fear that he won't match or surpass Borg in clay-court major titles, that Nadal, too, might just decide to take an early exit himself. (Borg turned 26 just days after he won his last French Open in 1981; he barely made it to September before he abruptly retired.)

Nadal won his 46th career title in Paris on Sunday, which is still a significant number fewer than Borg's 63, although that includes all surfaces. Nadal certainly has won more high-profile clay-court events, but that's not entirely fair to Borg. The calendar was different then, and the tour had yet to develop that sub-major tier (now called Masters 1000 events) that carries so much prestige.

One area in which Nadal is off-the-charts great, and probably superior to Borg, is his career record on clay. Nadal is now 227-18 for his career. It would be very hard to run down those numbers for Borg, but I suspect he'd have trouble matching Rafa.

It's very tempting to declare Nadal superior to Borg, but I have a few reasons for continuing to withhold my judgment:

1. Although Borg lost in Paris twice and Nadal just once (so far), each of them has lost to only one man. Adriano Panatta beat Borg in the fourth round in 1973 and in the quarters the year he won the entire tournament, 1976. But Borg was just 16 and had yet to win his first major in '73. It's interesting that Nadal just missed out on qualifying at almost exactly the same age, and a year later (shortly before he turned 18), Nadal missed Roland Garros with an injury. Had he played, it's unlikely he would have won.

2. Borg missed the French Open of 1977, at the zenith of his career. It's impossible to imagine him losing under anything but truly exceptional circumstances. And it's not like he was injured -- he made the boneheaded move to play World Team Tennis for big money in the U.S. instead of trying to reclaim the crown Panatta stole off his head in 1976.

3. The era was weaker, even if you factor in the rate of evolution in tennis. Granted, it's hard to quantify how much better yesteryear's players would have been in today's environment. But there's no doubt that Nadal has had to face far better, tougher opponents -- all you have to look at is their records or the scores by which Borg ripped through the French Open

Over the years at the French Open, Borg beat finalists the likes of Guillermo Vilas (a clay-court specialist whom Borg owned), Victor Pecci and Vitas Gerulaitis. That's not exactly like taking down Roger Federer four times, Robin Soderling and the fluke, Mariano Puerta.

I believe Nadal is on track to amass a record that is unsurpassed on clay, but as far as his rivalry with Borg? It's to be continued.