French Open: Serena Williams and the Tourney's 10 Biggest All-Time Chokes
A choke is like a fiery car crash: you feel terrible, but you just can’t help but watch.
It's when players are poised to win it all, only to have their hopes get lodged in their throat. The taste of sweet victory is replaced by agonizing defeat, and the favorite comes crashing down.
In the world of tennis, these epic meltdowns turn matches from sporting events into Oscar-worthy dramas. Players become actors as they start to unravel, throwing their rackets, screaming in pain and then losing it all.
On the grand stage of Roland Garros, there have been quite a few chokes that have brought champions to their knees. But there have been no more epic collapses than these 10.
Here's a warning: All of the following meltdowns will make you cringe.
No. 10: Maria Sharapova, 2006 Fourth Round
Maria Sharapova is known for her decibel-breaking shrieks, but when the Russian choked in the fourth round of the 2006 French Open, there was nothing but silence on the court.
Up until the fourth round, Sharapova had an easy draw and was poised to go all the way.
However, when she stepped on the court to take on Dinara Safina—who was known more for her older brother Marat Safin than her own career—Sharapova’s killer forehand faltered. Sharapova lost the first set 7-5 due to too many unforced errors. She came back to win the second set 6-2 and was up 5-1 in the third.
That’s when the court went silent.
Safina took advantage of Sharapova’s error-riddled game and battled her way to a 7-5 victory in the third set. That’s six straight games for Safina.
Sharapova was just four points away from moving on. Because she could not hit a forehand to save her life, however, Sharapova starts off this list at No. 10.
Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2002 Finals
It was set to be a blowout for Juan Carlos Ferrero in the finals of the 2002 French Open.
The young Spaniard was set to play Albert Costa, and saying Ferrero was the favorite is an understatement. Since he first made it to the final of the French Open junior tournament in 1998, Ferrero was known for being a threat on clay.
Costa, on the other hand, was not. The older Spaniard had been playing professionally for 10 years at this point and had never won a Grand Slam itle. In fact, he never made it past a quarterfinal match.
Until the 2002 French Open.
Costa came out of the gates strong, winning the first two sets 6-1, 6-0.
Although Ferrero was the younger, more agile player, he froze on the court that day. His rally in the third set was not enough, and he went on to lose to Costa in four sets.
The 2002 French Open is Costa’s only major win and one of Ferrero’s most embarrassing moments.
No. 8: Ivan Lendl, 1989 Fourth Round
It was David versus Goliath in the fourth round of the 1989 French Open. Ivan Lendl, No. 1 in the world, was taking on a young Michael Chang.
Chang was only 17 years old and had complained of cramps while at Roland Garros. So, Lendl took the first two sets with relative ease, winning 6-4, 6-4.
After the match, Chang said he wanted to quit because the cramps in his legs were so bad.
Good thing he didn’t.
The clay at Roland Garros was a great asset for the speedy Chang, and he managed to rally in the third and fourth sets, winning 6-3, 6-3.
Lendl was shocked going into the fifth set, confused how a teenager could sneak by him. Although Lendl was taken aback by Chang’s comeback performance before the fifth set, he was blown right over after Chang, who was serving 4-3, hit one of the most famous shots in tennis (the clip above).
Chang took the fifth set 6-3. He went on to win the 1989 French Open and become the youngest male Grand Slam titleholder ever.
It was an amazing comeback by Chang and a huge choke by Lendl.
No. 7: Amelie Mauresmo, 2001 First Round
Amelie Mauresmo grew up on clay. Over the years, the French player had developed an impeccable game, and even made a few runs at the other Grand Slam titles. Clay was Mauresmo’s first love, however, and in the 2001 French Open, she was supposed to win.
She was supposed to win a lot of the French Opens, but Mauresmo could never make it past the first few rounds at Roland Garros.
Because she is France’s biggest choke artist. Whenever she plays at Roland Garros, her countrymen refuse to watch her, fearful that she will again lose on her home turf.
Although she choked many a time, the worst was in the 2001 French Open. Mauresmo had great performances on clay before Roland Garros, with a win in Berlin and a final appearance in Rome.
She was supposed to be a sure thing, but after facing the unknown Jana Kandarr in the first round, she was anything but. Mauresmo fell 7-5, 7-5 and her chance at redemption at Roland Garros was shot down forever.
No. 6: Martina Navratilova, 1983 Fourth Round
When someone bagels their opponent in tennis, they have completely dominated them. For those of you who don’t know what a bagel is, it’s a 6-0 victory (or loss).
In 1983 Martina Navratilova bagel-ed an unknown Kathleen Horvath in the second set in the fourth round of the 1983 French Open…and she went on to lose.
Navratilova was undefeated coming to Roland Garros that year, and it seemed as if she would have no trouble over the unknown American Horvath.
When the match started, however, Horvath quickly proved that she was not to be underestimated, and she won the first set 6-4.
Navratilova was the top-ranked player, and Horvath was an inexperienced 17-year-old. So, Navratilova showed her dominance by bagel-ing Horvath in the second set.
You don’t choke after you beat someone 6-0. You just don’t. But somehow, Navratilova managed to. She went on to lose 6-3 in the third set, and her singles record for the year became 86-1.
No. 5: Martina Hingis, 1999 Final
Martina Hingis made a big impact in the tennis world at a very young age. Hingis started winning Grand Slam titles at the age of 15 when she won the Wimbledon doubles championship. The Swiss firecracker took her first single title at the 1997 Australian Open.
However, it was her age and immaturity that caused her to join this list after she choked against Steffi Graf in the 1999 final.
Hingis was No. 1 in the world coming into that year’s French Open, and it looked as if the 18-year-old Swiss would keep that ranking after taking the first set 6-4 against a 29-year-old Graf.
Graf admitted that she considered herself to be a surprise finalist, but she was more than able to take down No. 3 Lindsay Davenport and No. 2 Monica Seles on the road to the finals.
Hingis was up 2-0 in the second set when she disputed a line call, and her meltdown began. That seems to be the M.O. of chokes: The players are fine, and then one little thing sets them off and there is no turning back.
After the linesman called Hingis’ ball out, her immaturity reared its head, and she started to act like a little kid who didn’t get her way. Hingis walked over to Graf’s side of the net—which is not allowed in tennis, and could have given her a penalty point—to prove her point.
When the umpire overruled her argument, Hingis refused to keep playing and took a seat on the sidelines. She was issued a penalty, and from there she lost the match.
Hingis’ meltdown continued even after the match. Her mother had to drag the crying Hingis onto the court so she could receive her second-place trophy.
No. 4: John McEnroe, 1984 Final
Johnny Mac is best known for his short temper, emotional outbursts and his extensive collection of Grand Slam titles. In the 1984 final, McEnroe was able to combine all of these ingredients…minus the trophy.
McEnroe was squaring off against Ivan Lendl, and in the first two sets, McEnroe was on fire. McEnroe took the ball on the rise, which is a rare thing to do on clay, and his returns proved to be too quick for Lendl.
Then came the indubitable sound of choking. For McEnroe, that sound was him yelling at a noisy cameraman. It was as if someone had flipped a light switch, and McEnroe went from dominating his opponent to getting dominated.
McEnroe’s infamous temper was definitely the cause of his downfall, and the great American went on to lose 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.
The greatest picture of McEnroe in the 1984 final was not one of him on the court, but during the trophy ceremony. Like all Grand Slam champs, Lendl raised the first-place trophy over his head in ecstasy, and right beside him was McEnroe holding the second-place prize (which looked like a mere dinner plate next to the French Open Cup) with a look of utter disbelief and confusion on Johnny Mac’s face.
McEnroe is still most famously known for his temper and numerous Grand Slam titles. But his choke in the 1984 French Open finals will always haunt him.
No. 3: Gabriela Sabatini, 1993 Quarterfinals
This is probably the greatest example of the yips I have ever seen.
In the 1993 quarterfinals, the heavily favored Gabriela Sabatini showed the world that even the best players in the world can “forget” how to serve.
Sabatini, arguably the best female player on clay of her time, was just four points away from taking home the championship trophy when she literally lost her serve. The Argentina native was squaring off against Mary Joe Fernandez and had dominated the match, leading 6-1, 5-1.
Then, like all great choke artists, Sabatini broke down without warning. Chalk it up to nerves, but Sabatini froze up and could not swing her arm over her head hard enough to hit a serve. Once the double faults started, they couldn’t stop.
Sabatini went on to lose to the 22-year-old American, 1-6, 7-6, 10-8, even though she had five championship points.
No. 2: Guillermo Coria, 2004 Final
Guillermo Coria will forever be known as the guy who choked in the 2004 French Open.
Although the Argentine could almost taste victory in the 2004 final against Gaston Gaudio, he let it all slip away.
The No. 3 seed that year, Coria breezed through the first two sets, winning 6-0, 6-3. Coria was up 40-0 and serving in the third set, which was tied at 4-4, when out of nowhere he started to crumble—physically.
Maybe it was nerves, or maybe it was the wave the crowd did to cheer on No. 44 Gaudio. But all of a sudden, Coria started to complain about leg cramps. Commentators referred to them as “phantom cramps,” but whether they were real or not, they sure took a toll on Coria’s game.
Coria went on to shut down completely. losing the third and fourth sets, 6-1, 6-4.
Then came the notorious fifth set. Here is where Coria’s choke gets even worse. Coria was up 6-5, serving for the Grand Slam title and let two championship points slip right through his fingers. To make it even worse, the two championship points were on attempted winners that just barely missed the line.
Coria went on to lose the fifth set 8-6 and become the only man to lose a Grand Slam singles final in the Open era after having held a championship point.
Maybe it was nerves that caused Coria to cramp, or maybe it was the realization that he could actually win that caused him to shut down. But whatever it was, it killed Coria’s career, as he went on to choke away his chances at achieving greatness.
No. 1: Serena Williams, 2012 First Round
Thirteen: the number of consecutive points that Serena Williams lost Tuesday in the first round of the 2012 French Open. Williams lost six of those in the tie-break of the second set, and the first seven of the third set.
For years, people have said that Coria’s performance at Roland Garros in 2004 was the worst choke in French Open history. But after Tuesday, Serena takes the cake.
Let’s set the scene to Serena’s shutdown.
Williams was hot off a victory in Madrid and had won the last 17 matches, all on clay. Williams also boasted an impressive 46-0 record in the first round of every Grand Slam.
Now, it’s 46-1.
No. 5 Williams took the first set 6-4 over No. 111 Virginie Razzano of France, and it looked like she would get the second as well. Williams was up 5-1 in the tiebreaker of the second set, just two points away from moving on to the second round, when she had some serious neck restriction; she choked.
The crowd was cheering for Razzano, the hometown favorite who had lost her fiancé just eight days before the 2011 French Open, and apparently Williams didn’t like it. Although she didn’t say it out loud, her performance said it all.
After losing six consecutive points in the tiebreaker and the second set, Williams walked back to her chair, blew her nose and wiped her eyes. She walked back to the baseline, staring at her racket, praying for an answer. But her racket wasn’t saying anything.
Serena looked like a ghost during the third set. In the blink of an eye, she was down 5-0. Williams briefly rallied, pushing Razzano to 5-3.
But in a grueling 23-minute game, filled with 11 deuce points, eight of them match points for Razzano, Serena pounded the last nail into her own coffin. Williams was simply putting too much pace on her returns, and either dumped them straight into the net or sent them sailing way past the baseline.
Backed by the crowd, Razzano was able to finish off Williams, dotting the last period in the greatest choke performance in French Open history.