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15 Greatest Clay Court Players of All Time

Clay court tennis players are a different breed when it comes to consistent success. Moving on clay is more challenging, and the ball slows down so that the points last longer. A quality clay court tennis player must be in outstanding shape to win a big tournament.

Just about every tennis fan already knows the number one clay court player of all time, but who else joins the list?

Here are the 15 greatest clay court players of all time.

1. Rafael Nadal

  • French Open Titles: 14

As if there would be anyone different at the top of this list. Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time, and it’s not particularly close.

To begin and end any debate, looking at his 14 Grand Slam titles at the French Open is a great starting point. During his prime, he was virtually unbeatable on red clay. Even now, well past his physical prime, he’s winning consistently.

His style of play works perfectly for the surface. The ball sits up a little bit more for him to drive balls to all corners of the court. His superb movement by sliding into turns and shots makes a difference. He feels like a true natural on the surface.

Multiple wins at nearly every important clay court tournament in the world? He has them. The entire clay court season is when he racks up points for a high ranking.

There’s always a chance that someone else comes along who could be just as dominant, but it would take a gigantic effort to match what Rafael Nadal has accomplished.

Considering he has twice as many French Open titles as anyone else on this list says all there needs to be about how he’s reached a different level.

2. Justine Henin

  • French Open Titles: 4

The most dominating player on the women’s tour in the 2000s was Justine Henin. She was a small, yet powerful player who could dictate points by moving her opponent around all over the place. Her accuracy on clay court surfaces proved her to be truly dominant.

She finished her career with four French Open titles, including three in a row from 2005 to 2007. The ball would sit perfectly for her to use her one-handed backhand as a true weapon. If her dominance lasted a little longer, she’d be in the argument for the greatest women’s clay court tennis player ever.

3. Gustavo Kuerten

  • French Open Titles: 2

Affectionately known as “Guga” while playing, Kuerten was a different player when on clay courts. He won a pair of French Opens, dominating opponents with elegant strokes and outstanding movement.

Winning back-to-back titles at any Grand Slam can be extremely challenging. He was fortunate to get two titles right before Rafael Nadal started to burst on the scene. Winning some of the 1000-level events on red clay also added to his legacy.

4. Roger Federer

  • French Open Titles: 1

Roger Federer was the second-best clay court tennis player in the world for several years. Unfortunately, it happened to line up with Rafael Nadal. Federer never figured out how to get past Nadal at the French Open. When he finally won his only title in Paris, Federer needed another person to face in the final.

They shouldn’t be looked at as a negative, as he was going up against the very best. Federer still has plenty to brag about on clay. He’s won 11 titles in his career, and his history of success for more than a decade shows his skill.

He’s not playing on clay courts much any longer, but that has a lot to do with saving his body for surfaces he’s more consistent on (Federer retired in 2022).

5. Novak Djokovic

  • French Open Titles: 2

Novak Djokovic has carved himself out a pretty solid career on clay courts. He has won a couple of French Open titles, and he has close to 20 clay court titles overall. In just about any other era, he’d probably have even more success, as Rafael Nadal has been in his way more often than not.

The diversity of wins on red clay is pretty impressive as well. He’s won multiple times at Monte Carlo, Madrid, and the Italian Open. Going up against Nadal has been a challenge, but he’s even been able to knock him off on occasion.

He’s one of the few players on this list with the capability of moving up. There’s still a solid amount of tennis left in him at a high level. If he holds on for a few more years after Nadal steps away from the game, Djokovic would instantly become a much bigger favorite.

Regardless of his ability on the clay courts, Djokovic is still the greatest tennis player of all time.

6. Bjorn Borg

  • French Open Titles: 6

Borg was a pretty solid number 1 clay court player of all time until Rafael Nadal started to win everything in sight. He finished his career with six French Open titles, and his win percentage on clay was over 86% for his career.

What helped out Borg was his ability to play from the baseline instead of serving and volleying in all the time. He was able to use his fitness to his advantage, hitting hard shots from the baseline and wearing out opponents. In a best-of-five sets match, it was nearly impossible to figure him out.

7. Ivan Lendl

  • French Open Titles: 3

Ivan Lendl was a very solid player on every surface, but he likely had his most success at the French Open. In the mid-1980s, he won three out of four Grand Slam titles in Paris between 1984 and 1987. His only loss came in the finals in 1985.

Top spin shots and solid fitness from the baseline allowed Lendl to have success. Lendl doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves for the number of finals he reached. Even when he wasn’t hoisting trophies, he found ways to be there during the final weekend of major tournaments.

8. Mats Wilander

  • French Open Titles: 3

With all the recent success of more modern players, Matt Wilander is getting a bit overlooked as a tennis player. His best surface was clay, and he took home three French Open titles in his career.

Part of the reason why he might not get the credit he deserves is that his prime wasn’t nearly as long as some of the other greats.

He always competed well in Paris, and the red clay at Rome and Monte Carlo also treated him very well. Even at the very tail end of his career, he was a very tough out on red clay tournaments.

9. Jim Courier

  • French Open Titles: 2

Americans historically struggle on red clay tennis courts. They don’t have the same availability as in Europe or South America, so practice isn’t always easy. Jim Courier didn’t seem to care too much, as he won a pair of French Open titles in the early 1990s to help build his Hall of Fame résumé.

Courier had a game built for clay, and he could win in different formats as well. He might not have the same amount of clay titles that some of the other greats have, but he seemed like a true natural on red clay whenever he played.

10. Guillermo Vilas

  • French Open Titles: 1

Despite being in the mix for a title for numerous years, Guillermo Vilas only won the French Open once in 1977. The left-hander racked up clay court titles throughout his career, but that Grand Slam win proved to be the only time he’d take home a title in Paris.

Growing up on red clay in Argentina, 1977 was the year he put it all together in general. He finished his career with a ton of titles, and 14 of them came in that year alone.

One thing to keep in mind is that Vilas won the 1977 U.S. Open, which was the final year that it was played on clay courts. This sometimes gets forgotten when looking at the best clay court players of all time, as it was only on that surface for three years.

11. Andre Agassi

  • French Open Titles: 1

Success on any surface for Andre Agassi didn’t always come easy. He was notoriously very uncomfortable on grass early in his career, and clay wasn’t too much better. However, after learning how to handle clay consistently, wins started to pile up.

He took home just seven clay court titles during his career, but his win at the 1989 French Open helped make him a career Grand Slam winner. It wasn’t just a fluke run, as he was able to make it deep in the tournament a few other times as well.

12. Chris Evert

  • French Open Titles: 7

No player in women’s tennis history can compete with the Queen of Clay herself, Chris Evert. Finishing her career with seven French Open titles, she had a remarkable win streak on the surface as well.

Everett never hit for much power, but clay court allowed her to showcase all of her different skills. She could change pace to throw off her opponents at any time. 

Movement was also a consistent killer for others to deal with, which is surprising for an American player who didn’t grow up specifically on red clay. Playing at a high level for a long time allowed her to excel on clay and cause trouble for opponents even past her prime.

13. Steffi Graf

  • French Open Titles: 6

Steffi Graf was such a dominant player on all surfaces during her prime. She has titles virtually everywhere, and six of those came at the French Open. She won the tournament when she was very young in 1987, but she found a way to gut it out as a seasoned veteran in 1999 as well.

Graf plays just a little bit different on every single surface. Instead of coming to the net as much, clay court play was all about grinding it out for the baseline. She had the strong mindset to always gut out tough points, even if she wasn’t at her best.

14. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario

  • French Open Titles: 3

The Spaniard finished her career with three French Open titles on red clay. Winning her first in 1989 and her last in 1998, a dominant run that lasted about a decade made her a tough out on the surface.

Despite her Grand Slam titles, Sanchez-Vicario doesn’t get the same type of recognition as some of the other players in the history of the game. She was a bit of a clay court specialist, but she still competed in plenty of other tournaments during the year.

15. Monica Seles

  • French Open Titles: 3

Despite a short prime, Monica Seles found a way to win three French Opens during her career. She first made a name for herself in 1990, beating Steffi Graf easily in the final. It would be part of a three-year run that allowed her to be the Queen of Clay.

An aggressive baseliner who could drive opponents crazy in a variety of ways, Seles never quite played the same way when she returned from her stabbing incident. It’s a shame that she was not able to see just how dominant she could be on red clay.

What Makes a Great Clay Court Tennis Player?

A lot of instructors feel like playing clay court tennis is the best way to learn the game. That’s because there are usually longer rallies that require consistent play to win. Execution must be at a high, as big hitters don’t win free points as easily.

Movement is also extremely key when playing on clay. Not only do players need to run around the courts well, but sliding into shots and changing directions matters.

Fitness comes into play, especially at the French Open. It takes seven hard-fought battles, and it’s best-of-five sets on the men’s side. While all Grand Slam events require fitness, it’s just a bit harder there.