Terre battue, which means “beaten earth” in French, is a mixture of crushed brick — made of fired red clay — and tile. It is a finicky surface; it’s dirty; it’s slow and it requires your unabashed attention if you are seeking success on it. For most of his career, that’s one thing that even Roger Federer struggled with. He never could devote enough time and attention to clay. Then, of course, Rafael Nadal came along and everyone else started struggling as well.
Jokes aside, clay more than other surface on the tennis circuit lends itself to specialisation. The slowness of the red dirt and higher bounce often require not just different grips, but a completely new tactical outlook. The hard courts are the most balanced and allow all kinds of players to flourish, the speed and low bounce of the grass courts means that players who can end points quickly are generally at an advantage. The slower clay surface, however, lends itself to players who are adept at playing sweeping groundstrokes, use a lot of spin and, to a certain extent, nullifies the booming serves of the power players.
In 2001, Gustavo Kuerten, who was just coming off his third French Open title, joined the ranks of the clay court specialists who gave Wimbledon a miss. He wasn’t the first to do it either. Kuerten threatened to boycott the grass court Grand Slam if the tournament seedings weren’t taken off the rankings computer. Later, he claimed a leg injury. But to many, it was also a sign that Kuerten’s game just wasn’t good enough to give him a good chance on grass. It was too attuned to vagaries of clay.
Clay courters prefer the grind to the glitz; the pain to the quick relief; the long rallies where stamina and speed are rewarded. With the number of serve and volleyers going down immensely, the divide isn’t as evident but it’s still there. When Ivan Lendl missed Wimbledon in 1982, he uttered what has since become a cliché: “Grass is for the cows.” Frenchman Yannick Noah played there only three times during his prime. Andre Agassi skipped Wimbledon, too, in the early part of his career from 1988-90. Other champions like Manuel Orentes, Guillermo Vilas, Adriano Panatta, Thomas Muster and Andres Gomez also weren’t averse to the idea of giving Wimbledon a miss and that’s what they often did for their only love was clay.
That said, only a special breed can succeed at Roland Garros and even among them are guys who stood head and shoulder above the rest. What follows is a look at the giants of clay — men who truly managed to master the unforgiving surface.
Bjorn Borg (6 titles)
There are some like Borg who managed to master both clay and grass. The manner in which the Swede managed to change gears was pure genius. But as good as he was on grass, he was truly special on clay. Borg’s record at Roland Garros stands at an incredible 49-2 mark and his six French Open titles are unmatched by anyone in tennis history. He started off with wins in 1974 and 1975 before reeling off four straight between ’78 and ’81. A true all-surface great if there ever was one.
Rafael Nadal (5 titles)
The Spaniard was another one who grew up on the clay courts in his home town in Barcelona. By the time he was 16, he has mastered the surface and his record speaks for itself. A 38-1 record shows just how good he’s been at the French Open. The reigning champion has won five titles, including a record-tying four straight from 2005 to 2008. His only loss on the red clay of Paris came in four sets to a red-hot Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the 2009 tournament. A year later, he avenged the loss in the final.
Mats Wilander (3 titles)
Almost as soon as Borg walked off the scene, Mats Wilander found his footing. The Swedish star won three majors in Paris, in 1982, 1985 and 1988. He lost two other finals in 1983 and 1987, and reached the semi-finals six times. Wilander never had great shots, but his tactical genius and quick legs made up for it.
Ivan Lendl (3 titles)
Fitness was Lendl’s mantra and his groundstrokes were honed by hours of practice. Between 1984-87, the Czechoslovakian — now American — reached the French Open final four consecutive years, winning the title three times. He also made the championship match in 1981, only to lose to Borg in five sets.
Gustavo Kuerten (3 titles)
The frail figure of Guga was synonymous with the French Open. His shot-making prowess was superb and even though he won only 20 career titles, three of them were French Open titles. He never got beyond the quarterfinals of any other Grand Slam event. He first won the title in 1997 beat Sergi Bruguera. Magnus Norman in 2000 and Alex Corretja in 2001 also fell in the final against him.