Rafael Nadal has etched his legacy as the best clay court player of all time, but with an increasingly laudable body of work on the red dirt, Novak Djokovic is making a play for number two on that list.
That’s saying something, considering that Djokovic already stands as the best hard court player of all time. The Serbian’s victory at the 2022 Italian Open put in stark relief his clay skills in five brilliant matches without dropping a set.
Novak’s main competition in the horse race for the second best clay court player of all time is Bjorn Borg. The cool cat from Sweden won six Roland Garros titles and an astounding 32 clay court titles overall. To be clear, we’re talking about number two here– not number one. For reference, Nadal has nearly doubled Borg’s haul with 62 clay court titles, including 13 at Roland Garros. His achievements dwarf everyone else’s, and Rafa has played in an era with Djokovic, Roger Federer, as well as many adroit clay court specialists. His competition has been elite.
The Argument for Borg
If you had to pick a second best on clay today, most would pick Borg. His 32 clay court titles bests Novak’s 18. His six French Open titles include a dominant run of 4 in a row from 1978-1981.
Borg won 41 consecutive sets at the French Open which is a record that stands today in Paris. Rafa stands at 2, 3 and 4 on that list with most consecutive sets at the Roland Garros with 37 being the closest he ever got to Borg.
The Swede’s overall clay court record is 245-39, which is a higher winning percentage than Novak’s clay court record of 253-62. It’s noteworthy that the durability and longevity of Djokovic enabled him to recently surpass Borg in overall wins on the dirt.
Borg might have been a victim of his self-imposed shortened career as well as not playing in an era with supreme clay-courters like Nadal and Djokovic.
The Case for Djokovic
Here’s what’s interesting about Novak. He learned the game and grew up on clay. He can defend brilliantly and uses the drop shot effectively– both strategies that go with clay like peanut butter and jelly. To the eye-test, his clay court play is sublime.
Keep in mind Nole’s typical game plan for clay season. With that astounding Grand Slam tally in his pocket, he sometimes curtails his schedule in order to peak at Roland Garros. He often, wisely, makes incremental steps toward rounding into form. Bottom line: Djokovic very likely could have been the undisputed number two on clay– if he wanted to.
His best argument is that he has played in an era with clay king Rafael Nadal.
Who Has Beaten Nadal the Most on Clay?
This honor belongs to Djokovic. Nole has beaten Rafa eight times on clay, with two extraordinary victories at Roland Garros in 2015 and 2021. These two titans of tennis are only separated by a few months in age. With the Serbian currently in peak physical condition and the Spaniard suffering a multitude of injuries, Djokovic could keep going. They could even end up in the same side of the Roland Garros 2022 draw and meet as early as the quarterfinals. Bottom line: Djokovic just won Rome, and he’s not done yet on clay. Not nearly.
So the answer to the question, “is Djokovic the second best clay court player of all time?” might well be “not yet.”
One thing is clear: Djokovic has a major opportunity to move past several names in the clay court pantheon by winning Roland Garros 2022. Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl have three French Open titles, while Djokovic only has two. A handful of players also have two, and Djokovic would glide past them with a win this year.
Not only do the denizens of clay need to worry about Djokovic leaving them in the dirt, the Serbian superstar is also nipping at the heels of the grass greats. With six Wimbledon titles, Djokovic needs only one more to catch Pete Sampras. While Federer is considered the greatest grass courter in history, Djokovic did beat the Swiss to grab the title in 2019.