Max Decugis: The First ‘King of Clay’

The mark of a true ‘King of Clay’ is the ability to win silverware at the French Open en route to a major tournament Grand Slam. Tellingly, between 2005 and 2014, Rafael Nadal won nine out of a possible ten French Open tournaments.

Combined with the unique pace of a clay court, Nadal’s calculated style and good all-round service skills are a force to be reckoned with; this year, he is the clear favourite in the tennis betting at 5/4 to claim the title yet again. Nadal’s mastery of the sport’s most notorious surface is self-evident, but the original ‘King of Clay’ he is not…

Playing to the Max

The inaugural French Open (1891) was won by a British player known only as “H. Briggs”, but between 1892 and 1932, every edition was won by a home player – due to exclusivity for French members that existed until 1925. Of those who benefited from this exclusivity, Max Decugis is the most prominent by far.

“Max Decugis” by Agence Rol via Bibliothèque nationale de France (Public Domain)

With eight victories in 12 editions, between 1903 and 1914, Decugis truly was the original King of Clay. Had it not been for the outbreak of World War I, there can be no telling just how long his monopoly over the tournament could have lasted. Of particular note was Decugis’ ongoing feud with his personal rival Maurice Germot. Of their innumerate clay court clashes, their meeting in the 1909 final – which gave Decugis his fifth French Open title – was arguably the greatest in the series.

In true Hollywood fashion, Decugis began by losing the first two sets without reply. Gallingly, he did so a mere year after effortlessly dispatching his opponent in the 1908 final. Then began one of the sport’s most famous comebacks of the pre-war era, with Decugis winning 6-4 in each of the following three sets to triumph once again over Germot.

“Suzanne Lenglen Court at Roland Garros” by Arnaud25 via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

A Bjorn winner

The lifting of the French Open’s exclusivity in 1925 initially did little for the diversity of winners and their nationalities. It was not until 1934 that French dominance was finally broken, with an Australian called Jack Crawford etching his name into the history books, after upsetting the home crowd with an heroic win in straight sets over reigning cup holder Henri Cochet.

Chains of three successive tournament wins, for any individual player, would not be forthcoming for many years after the end of World War II. That was until 1974, when an 18-year old Swede by the name of Bjorn Borg won his first French Open title, and then proceeded to successfully defend it the following year.

Two years of disappointment, in that tournament, would follow. However, now at his unstoppable prime, Borg then proceeded to win four times in succession, making an utter mockery of the French exclusivity that once appeared unbreakable.


Bjorn Borg wins his first French Open title.

One last triumph for Nadal?

Today, Rafael Nadal currently lies fifth in the ATP rankings. Though he is no longer the immovable object that once crushed everything in its wake, bookmakers believe that the Spaniard still has much to offer – especially on clay.
An exhibition victory over 1987 Wimbledon winner Pat Cash on clay (in 2001) was a sign of events to come for a then fresh-faced Nadal. Now, 16 years after turning professional and once again backed by a home crowd, Nadal again finds himself a firm favourite to win the Madrid Open.

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