Rafael Nadal – This is no surprise as Rafa has played Roland Garros 11 times and won the event 9 times! Rafa’s athleticism, competitive nature, and massive generation of top spin allow him to play clay court tennis with brutal efficiency. Rafa has dominated this event as no one has ever dominated Roland Garros. He has been so dominant that the incredible numbers of the number two player on this list are not close enough to make Rafa as #1 in Paris controversial. I don’t really have words for describing what Rafa has accomplished on the clay courts in Paris.
Bjorn Borg – Bjorn Borg was also a fast athlete and tireless competitor who hit the ball with more topspin than his contemporaries. Borg won Roland Garros 6 times and was able to grind down even the most stout baseline players. Borg twice beat Guillermo Vilas in the championship match and also took down Ivan Lendl in the 1981 French Open final. Borg’s powers of concentration and his fitness contributed to a Borg mystique that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ivan Lendl (Tie)– Ivan Lendl won the French Open in an epic fashion in 1984 and took the title again in 1986 and 1987. Lendl was runner-up in Paris in 1981 and 1985 losing to Borg and Wilander. Lendl would get revenge on Wilander by defeating the Swede in the 1987 championship match. Wilander did knock Lendl off en route to his 1982 Roland Garros title, but Lendl again avenged that loss in his march to the 1984 title. Lendl’s powerful physique and consistent ground game has some things in common with Nadal and Borg’s formula for winning on clay.
Mats Wilander (Tie) – Mats’ record in Paris is recounted above in Lendl’s summary. Wilander’s record at the French Open mirrors both Lendl’s Paris numbers and in some ways Boris Becker’s play at Wimbledon. Both Wilander and Becker won their first Grand Slam at 17 years of age. Wilander won with tireless baseline play, but he also won due to his tactical acumen and varied game. Wilander lacked a power game and yet won 7 major title and finished 1988 ranked #1 in the world. I am not sure a non-power player will ever finish the year ranked #1 again. Lleyton Hewitt and Stefan Edberg were not overwhelming power players, but both relied on power more than Wilander did.
Gustavo Kuerten – Guga also won 3 Roland Garros titles and is clearly on a much higher plane than everyone else on this list, but he is not tied with Lendl and Wilander. Guga won the French Open in 1997, 2000, and 2001. He reached the quarterfinal round in 1999 and 2004 and the round of 16 in 2002 and 2003. Guga was an artist in Paris and deserved all of the love he received from the fans. His win over Roger Federer in 2004 was his swan song in Paris as health issues cut his career short.
Roger Federer – Roger Federer being ahead of several two-time champions is perhaps controversial. Still, Roger won the French Open in 2009 and was runner-up in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011. All of his runner-up finishes came against Rafael Nadal as did his 2005 semifinal loss. Federer was a semifinal victim of Novak Djokovic in 2012. He lost in the 2001 quarterfinal to Alex Corretja, the 2015 quarterfinal to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka, and in the 2004 round of 32 to Gustavo Kuerten. Federer has been in the mix at Roland Garros for over a decade and his losses are pretty defensible.
Guillermo Vilas– The Argentine also leapfrogs several two-time champions due to having one Roland Garros title, two runner-up finishes at the hands of Bjorn Borg and another runner-up finish due to a loss to Mats Wilander. Vilas likely would have been the best clay court player of the 1970s if Bjorn Borg had picked a different sport from tennis.
Sergi Bruguera – Sergi was a two-time Roland Garros champion dethroning Jim Courier in 1993 and defending his title in 1994. He also finished as a runner-up in 1997 and a semifinalist in 1995. Bruguera defeated Courier in the 1994 Roland Garros semifinal so he gets a slight nod over Courier in this poll. Sergi helped to launch the Spanish Armada who have dominated clay court tennis ever since.
Jim Courier – Jim Courier’s come from behind win over Andre Agassi to take the 1991 French Open title is one of my favorite matches. Courier would defend his title by defeating a host of tough competition in 1992. Courier beat future Grand Slam winners Petr Korda, Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic, and Thomas Muster in his 1992 title run. Courier fell in the 1993 final and the 1994 semifinal rounds posting 25-2 record in Paris over 4 years.
Andre Agassi – Agassi was runner-up in Paris in 1990 and 1991. He was also a semifinalist in 1988 and 1992. It seemed as though Agassi would never win the French Open when Yevgeny Kafelnikov knocked him out of the 1995 event in the quarterfinal round. Agassi made an improbable run to the 1999 title and launched a second phase to his career. Agassi reached the final 8 in Paris in 2001, 2002, and 2003 helping finalize his legacy on the red clay of Roland Garros.