Countdown to Roland Garros: With less than a month to go until the start of the French Open, Last Word on Tennis begins its Countdown to Roland Garros. The 2017 French Open could be a truly historic one, as a rejuvenated Rafael Nadal, fresh from winning both the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open for a record 10th time, now stands on the brink of winning a 10th French Open. If he does triumph in Paris, he will become the first man or woman ever to win the same Grand Slam tournament ten times.
Over the next four weeks, Last Word on Tennis will build up to the 2017 French Open by looking back at the greatest French Open finals and the greatest French Open champions in both the men’s and women’s game, beginning with the Five Finest French Open Women’s Finals.
Like most finals in most sports, the majority of French Open women’s finals have not been great games. Indeed, most finals in the Open era (from 1968, when the “the French Championships” became “the French Open”) have been won in straight sets, with a particularly low point being reached in 1988, when Steffi Graf “double-bageled” Natasha Zvereva (a player from the former USSR who was really a doubles specialist), 6-0 6-0.
Nevertheless, there have been several truly great French Open women’s finals, all of which have gone to three sets. Here are the five finest.
- 2001: Jennifer Capriati beats Kim Clijsters (1-6 6-4 12-10)
Jennifer Capriati had already achieved some form of redemption for the most infamous drugs bust in tennis history (at least prior to Maria Sharapova’s ban for taking meldonium) by beating Martina Hingis in the 2001 Australian Open final. However, it was her triumph at Roland Garros later that year that really completed her comeback, showing that the Australian Open win was not a one-off but merely the first part of an extraordinary double that briefly had the tennis world wondering whether she could go on to win the calendar Grand Slam. Ultimately she could not, as she lost to Justine Henin in an epic three-set Wimbledon semifinal. Nonetheless, the memory of Capriati’s remarkable win in Paris will live long after all the tawdry stories about her are forgotten.
Capriati began the final dreadfully, as she was virtually blasted off court in the first set by Kim Clijsters, the other great Belgian woman to emerge in 2001 alongside Henin. But Capriati, showing all the fighting qualities that would make 2001 her annus mirabilis, fought back spectacularly to take the second set 6-4. Thus, the stage was set for the truly epic third set, which is the greatest in all French Open women’s finals in terms of the number of games played, with Capriati eventually winning 12-10. In doing so, she showed all the stamina, mental strength and sheer will to win that most people thought she had lost during her experimentation with drugs and forays into petty theft. As she herself put it at the end, “I just don’t know how I did it. I can’t believe I won two Grand Slams in a row. It’s unbelievable.”
- 1999: Steffi Graf beats Martina Hingis (4–6 7–5 6–2)
If Capriati versus Clijsters in 2001 was a contest between two young contenders, the 1999 French Open final was a clash of two great champions, Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis. Such was Graf’s dominance of the women’s game during her career that it was only earlier this year that Serena Williams finally overtook her Open Era record of 22 Major singles titles by winning the Australian Open.
However, it should always be remembered that Graf, for all her technical brilliance and formidable mental fortitude, got lucky in one respect, namely that her main rival in the 1990s, Monica Seles, was never the same player again after the dreadful stabbing she suffered on court in 1995 at the hands of Günter Parche, a self-confessed Steffi fanatic who feared that Seles would overtake her as the greatest player of her generation.
For much of the rest of her career, Graf faced only two serious rivals who could compete with the power of her ground strokes and her sheer durability on court: Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, with whom she would fight out several great finals (including one on this list); and Martina Hingis, the young Swiss who at the end of the 1990s was the rising force in the women’s game.
In fact, in 1999, when she faced Graf in the French final, Hingis was going for the career Grand Slam. Typically, Graf was in no mood to surrender easily and so the two great baseliners slugged it out, with Hingis taking the first set 6-4 and going a break up in the second before Graf fought back to edge it 7-5. Then, in the third set Graf showed her true greatness by dominating her much younger rival (at only 18, Hingis was more than a decade younger than her), eventually closing out the match 6-2. Hingis was reduced to tears and in the years ahead, as the Williams sisters rose up to dominate women’s tennis, she would never win the French Open, joining the likes of John McEnroe and Pete Sampras as a great champion who never quite conquered clay.
As for Graf, this was the curtain call on her great career. She announced after the match that it would be her last appearance at the French Open and it turned out that the 1999 triumph in Paris was her last ever Grand Slam win. It was a fitting end to one of the greatest careers in women’s tennis, especially as she had achieved her victory over a much younger rival who, after losing at Roland Garros, never won another Grand Slam final again.
- 1996: Steffi Graf beats Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (6–3 6–7 10–8)
This was one of the finest of the thrilling finals between Graf and Sánchez Vicario in the mid-1990s that for a time – between the stabbing of Monica Seles and the emergence of Martina Hingis – established their rivalry as the greatest in the women’s game. If it was not quite as great as their Wimbledon final the year before, which featured an epic 20-minute game in the third set that would thereafter be known simply as the greatest single game in women’s tennis history, it was a close second.
The two women had actually met the year before in the French final, which had teetered on the brink of becoming a great match until Graf ran away with the third set, “bagelling” the Spaniard 6-0. The 1996 final, however, was undoubtedly magnificent. After Graf had won the first set 6-3, Sánchez Vicario took the second on a tie-break (winning it 7-4), setting the scene for a fabulous deciding set. Eventually Graf won 10-8 and at the time it was the longest ever women’s singles final at Roland Garros in terms of games. It would eventually be superseded in that regard by the 2001 epic between Capriati and Clijsters, but the 1996 final actually lasted longer, taking 3 hours and 3 minutes to complete, compared with the two hours and twenty-one minutes of the 2001 final.
For Sánchez Vicario, it was ultimately another crushing defeat to Graf and her third loss in a French final, as she had also lost the 1991 edition to Seles. However, she would also win the tournament three times (in 1989, 1994 and 1998), which is both a reminder of her own extraordinary prowess on clay and proof of Graf’s greatness.
- 1985: Chris Evert beats Martina Navratilova (6–3 6–7 7–5)
For most British tennis fans who grew up in the 1980s, it is scarcely believable that Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova finished their careers with exactly the same number of Grand Slam singles titles to their name – 18. That is because Navratilova was so dominant at Wimbledon, winning nine Wimbledon singles titles in total and defeating Evert in five of those finals. However, the roles were almost completely reversed at the French Open, with Evert winning seven times at Roland Garros and defeating Navratilova in three of those finals. Evert, the great baseliner, was always much more at home on the “terre battue” than Navratilova, who remains arguably the finest serve-volleyer in the history of women’s tennis.
The finest French Open final between the two was undoubtedly the 1985 edition, as Evert fought back from losing the first set relatively meekly to claim the final two sets and take the French crown. The second set was so close that it went to a tie-break, which Evert won 7-4, and the third set was an almost equally great struggle, which Evert eventually won 7-5.
Evert has always spoken of her 1985 French victory as the single most satisfying of all her Grand Slam singles wins, because for the two years before it Navratilova had had the Indian sign over her, defeating her in a succession of Grand Slam finals. In 1985, Evert at last won again, to prove that the greatest rivalry in the history of women’s tennis was not just a one-woman show, and that she could defeat the great Martina in a Major final.
- 1973: Margaret Court beats Chris Evert (6–7 7–6 6–4)
The greatest French Open women’s final of them all was, like so many on this list, a battle between two truly great champions, but unlike many of the other finals listed here (with the exception of the 1999 final between Graf and Hingis) it was also a battle of the generations. It saw the great Margaret Court, who is still the record-holder for most women’s singles Major titles ever (and she may remain so if Serena Williams decides that motherhood is even more enjoyable than winning multiple Majors), taking on and eventually defeating Chris Evert, who at the time was the rising young star of US and world tennis.
Court had already won the French Open four times when she faced Evert, for whom the 1973 French final was not only her first French final but her first Grand Slam final full-stop. That gulf in experience was also reflected in the ages of the two contestants, as Court was 31 and Evert only 18. However, when Evert won the first set on a tie-breaker (7-5), it seemed that the young pretender was going to defeat the old (or at least veteran) war-horse.
Of course, Court would never have won her record 24 Major singles titles without being a great competitor. She possessed in abundance what Australian sports fans call “Mongrel” and it was that sheer indomitability that took her to another tie-break in the second set, which she won 8-6. Thus, the stage was set for the epic third set, which was to prove one of the greatest sets in the history of women’s tennis. It demonstrated the contrast between the two women: Court the classic serve-volleyer (she is the only player who can legitimately rival Navratilova as the finest “net-rusher” the women’s game has ever seen); and Evert the brilliant base-liner who could seemingly return balls all day if necessary. Finally, Court triumphed, breaking Evert to win 6-4, and won her penultimate Grand Slam title. She would win her final Grand Slam singles title at the US Open later that year, but in between Evert would extract a measure of revenge by defeating her in the Wimbledon semi-final.
Ultimately, the 1973 final marked the end of one era and the beginning of another, with Evert eventually outstripping Court to win a record seven French Open titles. Now, with Rafael Nadal perhaps on the brink of a record 10 wins at the same Grand Slam event, Roland Garros 2017 may prove to be another truly historic French Open.