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Clay-court warriors

Borg, Vilas still the greatest, but Nadal coming up fast

Posted: Wednesday April 25, 2007 11:01AM; Updated: Wednesday April 25, 2007 11:29AM
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Rafael Nadal has won two straight French Open titles and holds the record for the longest winning streak on clay courts.
Rafael Nadal has won two straight French Open titles and holds the record for the longest winning streak on clay courts.
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Since clay-court season is upon us, I was wondering who you think is the greatest dirt-baller to play the game. Bjorn Borg? Guillermo Vilas? And where would Rafael Nadal fall in that category?
-- Andrea, Richmond, Texas

There are two right answers. The first is Chris Evert. The next is that Borg (or Vilas) would grind Nadal into, well, red clay. "When Nadal wins his sixth French Open, we'll talk," the old-timers will say. I'm at the risk of enduring some angry letters -- "You can't make a case based on two years!" -- by making the case that Nadal is, if not the best clay-courter ever, certainly well on his way.

This is such a weird time in the men's game. We're in the throes of the Gilded Age of Federer, a player we're all (self included) poised to call the Greatest of All-Time. Obscured by this aura is the niggling reality that on clay, it's the guy ranked No. 2 who is absolutely dominating.

It's not that Nadal owns Federer on the dirt. It's that he owns everyone! The guy is closing in on 70 straight clay-court matches, this at a time when the men's field has never been deeper. Before beating Federer in straight sets of the Monte Carlo event -- still another Masters Series title -- Nadal was surrendering an average of four games a match during the tournament.

And much as we hate this line of "reasoning," rev up a tape of Borg or Vilas, watch where their shots land, take note of the pace, and I defy you to tell me either would stand a chance against Nadal. Heresy, I know. But, I'm telling you, it wouldn't be close.

The problem with putting your chips on active players in these discussions is that their luck can change. Nadal goes on an inexplicable Guillermo Coria-like losing streak, and suddenly he's not such a force of nature. But the way things are going, and barring a radical change, he's on his way to becoming tennis' BMOC: best man on clay.

So, let me get this straight. According to some of your readers, it's OK for Federer to blow off Davis Cup because it "doesn't matter" and he should focus on winning the Slams. But somehow Federer has time to play a match against Nadal on "mixed surfaces" that is "just for fun"? I know you disagree with me in general on this point, but it's ridiculous to think of crowning Federer as the GOAT when he plays relatively little tennis. He shows up only for big tournaments and then acts put-upon when forced to play Canada and Cincinnati back to back. If the "Greatest Player of All Time" can't fit in a few hours to play a couple of (easy) Davis Cup matches, then he's too fragile to be deserving of any respect from anyone.
-- Joshua, Portland, Ore.

Real quick:

1) I think it's a stretch to compare a one-day exo to a week-long Davis Cup commitment (possibly four times a year) that entails best-of-five matches and immense pressure. But Josh is right insofar as this exhibition undercuts the "these-guys-are-too-focused-on-the-majors-to-waste-their-time-with-extraneous-events" argument.

2) Does Federer play fewer tournament than Rod Laver or even Pete Sampras in the mid-1990s? Yes. But it's really not a relevant comparison. He plays a perfectly appropriate schedule for 2007 -- a time during which the sport has never been more physical, the travel more rigorous, etc.

3) Back to the Battle of the Surfaces for a minute. If this Mailbag were a talk show, I'd invite a sports psychologist on to discuss the mental implications of playing your rival in a hit-and-giggle prior to the biggest stretch of the season. Maybe this is Federer softening up Nadal before the French, attempting to dial back the intensity. Maybe this is Nadal getting in Federer's head -- "I'll beat you on clay and grass at once, hombre!" -- just prior to Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Maybe this is two guys who simply want to make bank.

Regardless, it's hard to imagine two rivals in another sport doing something like this right before a high stakes battle. This is akin to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson agreeing to a shooting contest on the eve of the NBA Finals.

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