Bjorn Borg has been surpassed by Rafael Nadal for the title of “best male clay-court player of all time.” As in any instance when one great performer — in any sport or endeavor — eclipses another, the proper point of emphasis does not belong with the player who was surpassed, but the player who did the surpassing.
“Not doing quite as much as Nadal” is no criticism. It is a statement of limitation. It is, most of all, an acknowledgment of how incredible Nadal is, because when the Fedalovic (aka, Big 3) era of men’s tennis began, no one could have foreseen how fully all three men would rewrite the tennis history books.
In his time, Borg was the one who rewrote the book of tennis with nearly every French Open he played, and at Wimbledon beginning in 1976.
It is true that Nadal easily exceeds Borg as a clay-court master, but Borg is almost certain to remain the best natural-surface ATP player at the majors in the Open Era. Nadal has his 11 French Opens, and Roger Federer has his eight Wimbledons, but Borg has three channel slams, the same number as Nadal (2), Federer (1), and Novak Djokovic (0) combined. Nadal has struggled at Wimbledon since 2012. Federer has either struggled at the French Open since 2013 (a decisive quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) or not played the event. Djokovic didn’t become a dominant natural surface player until 2011, when he had turned 24.
Borg was plainly more consistent than the Big 3 in one specific respect: Being powerfully great and accomplished in the six weeks encompassing Paris and suburban London every June and July.
Yes, he could never figure out the U.S. Open — which was played on three different surfaces during his nine years of playing the majors (1973-1981) — and that’s why the diversity of Borg’s accomplishments is limited. In terms of combining Roland Garros and Wimbledon success, though, Borg’s axis of achievement holds up under scrutiny. His “weaker” link in the RG-Wimbledon axis was SW19, but that “weaker” tournament is still much stronger than any of Nadal’s (2 Wimbledon titles), Federer’s (1 Roland Garros title), or Djokovic’s (1 Roland Garros title) weaker links. No one made the transition across the channel better than Borg. That remains an airtight reality today, if only because Borg beat legitimately strong opposition in his time — Guillermo Vilas on clay, John McEnroe on grass, Jimmy Connors in any circumstance. The Big 3 (Fedalovic) have beaten each other up enough at the various majors to leave Borg in ownership of Channel Slam supremacy.
This is where Borg’s brilliance still stands tall.
One other way in which Borg’s legacy has withstood the Big 3 hurricane the past 15 years? His percentage-based records.
Borg’s winning percentages at the majors and his success rates in terms of titles won and finals made as a percentage of majors played are hard to top. Nadal — because of the fact that he has missed several majors due to injuries — most closely approaches Borg’s percentage-based supremacy, but as Wimbledon 2018 begins, Borg — with 141 major-tournament match wins against just 16 losses — still has the best winning percentage among players with at least 150 matches. His 51-4 Wimbledon record still offers the best ATP Open Era winning percentage at the All England Club among players with at least 50 matches at SW19.
It is true that had Borg played major tournaments in his late 20s, he might not have maintained his high winning percentage, but of course, this is the great mystery of Borg’s career. The what-ifs of Borg’s career exist at the U.S. Open, but they more profoundly and centrally refer not to what he achieved when he played, but what we never got to see.
Borg, even more than Nadal, mastered tennis at a young age, winning two French Opens before his 20th birthday. Nadal won one. Borg won his first Wimbledon one month after turning 20. In the nine years he played the majors, he won at least one major (RG or Wimbledon) in eight of them. Days after turning 25 years old in June of 1981, Borg had won 11 majors. Nadal, at that point in his career, had won 10. Federer had won 8. Djokovic had won 5. One can only wonder what Borg would have been able to achieve had he been able to merely play to age 30, which Federer and Nadal have already transcended and which Djokovic is currently trying to push past. Borg is the player whose lack of longevity is more conspicuous than that of any other ATP icon in the Open Era. That lack of longevity preserves his percentage-based achievements but denied tennis fans the experience of seeing a champion wrestle with the players who were trying to knock him off his perch in the early 1980s: McEnroe, Connors, and Ivan Lendl.
The Connors-Mac-Lendl era was a fun time to be a tennis fan, but Borg’s burnout-fueled absence from the party made it an incomplete celebration of the tennis boom which swept through America at that point in time. Borg’s lack of longevity will always be lamented, but that can never obscure the marked radiance of his accomplishments when he walked the Earth in his prime.
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