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Tebbutt Tuesday: Rafa vs. Bjorn

May 01, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Over the past 50 years two players have distanced themselves from all other men at the French Open – Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg. Only three players have won as many as three titles at Roland Garros – Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Gustavo Kuerten – while Nadal has amassed 10 and Borg six.

There are many uncanny similarities with Nadal and Borg beginning at the beginning – they were born 30 years apart in the month of June. The great Spaniard’s birthday is June 3, 1986 while the supreme Swede’s is June 6, 1956.

Both were unquestionably the best clay-court players of their generation – the most physical and with almost superhuman endurance and resolve. They also shared a mastery of topspin – Borg following in the line of champions such as Rod Laver and then Nadal taking it to a whole new level with forehand ball rotations per minute of up to 5,000. Size could be partly responsible for that – Nadal is 6-foot-1 and 188 pounds while Borg was 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds.

They both had two losses over all their years at Roland Garros – Borg (49-2) lost twice to Adriano Panatta (1973 and 1976 while beating the stylish Italian in Paris in 1975) and Nadal (79-2) was beaten by Robin Soderling of Sweden in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in 2015.

Both also missed one additional opportunity. Borg in 1977 when he signed to play World Team Tennis in the U.S., which made him ineligible for Roland Garros. For Nadal it was 2016 when a left wrist injury forced him to withdraw before his third-round match.

Borg (above in 1981 with French legend Réné Lacoste at right) won six of the seven French Opens he played between 1974 and 1981 while Nadal, since his first victory in 2005, has won 10 of 13.

Here, side-by-side, are their respective Roland Garros records:

RAFAEL NADAL                                             BJORN BORG

2017: Won – d. S. Wawrinka (3 sets)

2016: Lost 3R – walkover (left wrist)

2015: Lost 8s – N. Djokovic (3 sets)

2014: Won – d. N. Djokovic (4 sets)

2013: Won – d. D. Ferrer (3 sets)           1981: Won – d. I. Lendl (5 sets) 25

2012: Won – d. N. Djokovic (4 sets)       1980: Won – d. V. Gerulaitis (3 sets)

2011: Won – d. R. Federer (4 sets) 25    1979: Won – d. V. Pecci (4 sets)

2010: Won – d. R. Soderling (3 sets)       1978: Won – d. G. Vilas (3 sets)

2009: Lost 16s – R. Soderling (4 sets)      1977: DNP – World Team Tennis USA

2008: Won – d. R. Federer (3sets)           1976: Lost 8s – A. Panatta (4sets)

2007: Won – d. R. Federer (4 sets)           1975: Won – d. G. Vilas (3 sets)

2006: Won – d. R. Federer (4 sets)           1974: Won – d. M. Orantes (5 sets)

2005: Won – d. M. Puerta (4 sets)            1973: Lost 3R – A. Panatta (4 sets)

It’s noteworthy that by age 25 both had won six Roland Garros titles. For those not familiar with Borg’s story, in 1981 after losing the US Open final to John McEnroe, he played two more tournaments in the fall – Geneva (a title) and Tokyo (2R loss) – and then at 25 decided to take a five-month break from tennis. It wound up meaning he did would not meet his commitment of tournaments for the 1982 season. Upon his planned return in that year, the governing body at the time – the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC) – ruled that he would have to play qualifying at, among other tournaments, the French Open.

He wanted to play a reduced schedule and felt the MIPTC’s inflexibility was unjust considering his stature in the sport – six Roland Garros victories as well as five Wimbledon titles in a row from 1976 to 1980 – and refused to give in. So in 1982 he just played Monte Carlo, where he had a residence, and lost in the third round to Yannick Noah of France.

The following year, he only played Monte Carlo – a second round exit to another Frenchman, Henri Leconte – and in 1984 he lost again to Leconte in the first round in Stuttgart in his only match.

For whatever reasons, including what appeared to be a rudderless period in his personal life, that was basically the end of his career. It will remain an eternal mystery of tennis whether Borg, if he had been allowed to come back without tour restrictions in 1982, would have returned to his former grandeur and possibly pushed his Roland Garros title count to something approaching what Nadal has achieved.

But that seems unlikely because two redoubtable players were emerging who would win six of the next seven French Opens – his compatriot Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, the man he beat 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 in the championship match of his last Roland Garros in 1981.

In the final analysis almost all the numbers support Nadal as the superior player – he won 55 of his 77 titles on clay while for Borg it was 30 of his 55 on the terre battue.

In terms of all-time match winning percentage on clay, Nadal is No. 1 at 91.9 percent (401-35) while Borg is No. 2 at 85.9 percent (251-41). But after Borg essentially left the sport at age 25 in 1981 – his returns from 1982 to 1984 were minimal and he didn’t seem to really have his heart in it anymore. Then there was a gap from 1985 to 1990 when he didn’t play at all followed by an ill-fated comeback in 1991 at 34 when he lost all 12 matches he played before finally retiring for good in the fall of 1993.

So the Swede’s clay-court match winning percentage is probably more accurately calculated based on the years from 1972 to 1981. Over that period he was 88.2 percent (248-33).

Stoic and metronomic on court, Borg did not have as outgoing a personality as Nadal, but he was popular among his peers. The affable Nadal’s long-time coach, uncle Toni Nadal, was huge Borg fan and often talked about him with his nephew/protégé.

Recently, on ATPWorldTour.com, the 61-year-old Borg noted about the evolution of the 31-year-old Spaniard’s game: “Nadal has worked so hard to develop his backhand, particularly the crosscourt shot, which is not only a winner shot but also an attacking stroke in defence. He plays with tremendous intensity, as if every point is a match point. His serve often sets up the point, while the pace and placement of his forehand enables him to finish points.”

One of the few remaining things Borg has over Nadal in the record books is winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon back-to-back. He did it three times – in 1978-79-80, while Nadal has only done it twice – 2008 and 2010.

Borg has never really expressed regret about the premature end of his exceptional career. That contrasts with Nadal, closing in on his 32nd birthday next month. He seems as eager as ever to continue to try to excel at his sport.

WEDDING BELLS

Marin Cilic, the current World No. 4, married his long-time (almost 10 years) girlfriend Kristina Milkovic on Saturday in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Milkovic has university degrees in psychology and political science.

The 30-year-old Cilic, US Open champion in 2014, is one of the most respected and well-liked players on the pro tennis tour.

ON COURT AND IN FLIGHT

After losing the Barcelona Open final 6-2, 6-1 to Rafael Nadal under the watchful eye of ATP umpire Carlos Bernardes on Sunday, look who Stefanos Tsitsipas found himself seated close to on a flight to Portugal (Estoril) for this week’s ATP 250 tournament.

GOLDEN KNIGHTS FEVER

Las Vegas residents Andre Agassi, 48, and his wife, Stefanie Graf, 48, appear to be caught up in the excitement of their hometown Golden Knights playing in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Agassi and Graf are parents of a son, 16-year-old Jaden, a promising baseball player, and a daughter Jaz, 14.