Wimbledon has the famous grass courts, the snooty British uppityness and the awful movie association. The U.S. Open has the glitz and glamor of Arthur Ashe Stadium and New York City. The Australian Open has...well...we're not really sure what it has, but it is part of tennis' Grand Slam. And the French Open has the bright red clay courts and the rich history at one of tennis' most hollowed grounds.
As we reach the final weekend of the tournament's 2013 edition, let's take a look at the best championship matches in French Open history. For this list, we take into account not only the quality of play, but place even more emphasis on just how memorable of a match it was.
This could be an historic Saturday and Sunday with the men's and women's finals at Roland Garros, but it would take quite a memorable match to nudge its way onto this list.
Trying to come up with one word to describe Rafael Nadal at the French Open is easy. Unless it's only one word, then that's just mean. For a guy who is dominating, unstoppable, brilliant, masterful and awe-inspiring all at once, we need as many adjectives as possible to describe the beauty of Nadal at Roland Garros.
The problem with his utter unflappability at the French Open is that many of his championship matches have been ho-hum. But a French Open list without Nadal, who is gearing up for perhaps his eighth French Open crown, would be sacrilege.
So, we highlight his first ever title in 2005, where he dominated Mariano Puerta 6–7 (6-8), 6–3, 6–1, 7–5 to win his first Coupe des Mousquetaires. It was his semifinal defeat of Roger Federer on his 19th birthday that had more fireworks.
With just one loss in 57 matches at the French Open, it won't be a surprise if he wins title No. 8 this weekend. What would be surprising, is if the match is close enough to make it one of the greatest finals in French Open history.
Steffi Graf is one of the greatest tennis players of her generation. Martina Hingis had a fantastic run as well. So when Hingis nearly broke down in the 1999 French Open final at the hands of Graf, no one could have seen it coming. The 4–6, 7–5, 6–2 win for Graf was her sixth French Open title.
After a call went in Graf's favor in the second set, with Hingis on track to win the match, the wheels came off. As seen in the video of highlights from above, Hingis even goes with an underhand serve at one point (she even wins the point!).
It was a final where the crowd turned completely in Graf's favor, even booing Hingis at points. Hingis stormed off the court immediately following the loss, but eventually returned for the trophy ceremony.
It was Graf's final Grand Slam win, but probably one of the few times she faced, as many rightfully pointed out, a real life Richie Tenenbaum.
Look close: you can see the carving in the clay in the shape of a heart.
There are only five men who have won three or more French Open titles in the Open era. Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil is one of them. The champion in 1997, 2000 and 2001, it was his understated yet brilliant celebration after his final French Open crown that will leave him forever engraved in the Roland Garros lore.
After winning his third Coupe des Mousquetaires, the oft crazy-haired Gustavo Kuerten shook hands with the defeated Àlex Corretja, walked just past the service line, and, in the brick red clay surface synonymous with the French Open, drew a heart with his racket before laying down victorious to a rousing ovation.
After professing his love for the French Open with a simple drawing in the clay, Kuerten was forever more a fan favorite. In his final professional singles match on May 25, 2008, Kuertin wore the same blue and yellow outfit he won the 1997 French Open. He lost the match to Paul-Henri Mathieu. Even in loss, he was honored with a trophy that was a cross section of the famed clay court.
Andre Agassi joined only four others when he won the French Open in 1999. Not as the champ at Roland Garros, but as then just the fifth men's star to capture a career Grand Slam (winning the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens along with Wimbledon). He won the match 1–6, 2–6, 6–4, 6–3, 6–4 over Andrei Medvedev in stunning fashion with a comeback for the ages.
He would go on to win four more Grand Slam titles (one at the U.S. Open and three more Australian Opens), but the career Grand Slam, and the tears that came with it, was an indelible moment in Agassi's great career.
The Chis Evert-Martina Navrátilová rivalry is one of the greatest in tennis history. So it is no surprise that one of their French Open finales would end up as one of the all-time greatest matches.
In Johnette Howard's book The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navrátilová, Howard captures their 1985 French Open match exquisitely:
Over the next three hours, everything that their rivalry had ever revealed about Navratilova and Evert as athletes, as people, as friends, was about to be reprised on the floor of Roland Garros.
Even on television, their grunts of exertion were audible. So were the sandpapery sounds their sneakers made as they slid into their shots on the clay. When it was through, Navratilova came around to Evert’s side of the net to sling an arm around her. And Evert held on to Navratilova’s hand just an instant longer when their arm-in-arm walk off the court ended at the umpire’s chair, then turned away so Navratilova couldn’t see her shoving away a few tears.
Their rivalry brought out the best in one another, and Evert's 6–3, 6–7 (4-7), 7–5 win was a dazzling match.
Evert would go on to win her seventh French Open title in 1986. It is still the most of any woman.
Before Rafael Nadal, there was Bjorn Borg. Like Nadal, Borg was unstoppable at Roland Garros. In the eight tournaments he entered, he won six of them. While it isn't quite the Nadal-level domination we have seen the the last eight years, Borg was a treat to spectators each time he set foot on the red clay courts.
Unlike Nadal, he even had some close calls. Case in point: his first French Open win in 1974.
After two sets, Borg found himself down 2-6, 6-7 (1-7), and it seemed he may be overmatched. But then he found his form and turned into the unbeatable force that would become commonplace in France until 1981. He reeled off the next three sets 6-0, 6-1, 6-1 for a dominating win.
He would go on to win five more titles, his last coming in 1981.
Before being stabbed on court in one of sports' most bizarre and scary moments in 1993, Monica Seles was an unstoppable force on the tennis court. From January 1991 to February 1993, Seles played in 34 tournaments. She won 22 of those and reached the final 33 times.
Not that Steffi Graf was much of a slouch. The 1992 battle between the two showed that these were two of the greatest players in the world.
The marathon match lasted two hours and 43 minutes and only finished after Seles won the final set 10-8 (She won the match 6-2, 3-6, 10-8).
Sadly, Seles was stabbed the following year by a crazed Graf fan, and failed to return to the form she had from 1991 to 1993, so the never-ending match with Graf ended up being Seles' final French Open championship.
John McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles. They failed, however, to come from anywhere but Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.
He was close to winning a French Open once. Very close. In 1984, McEnroe was playing some of the best tennis anyone ever played: he was 82-3 in matches and won 13 singles titles. In the French Open final, he was up two sets to none against Ivan Lendl. Then, McEnroe had one of the outbursts he is famous for when he shouted at a cameraman in the third set. From that point forward, Lendl took over. It was a tense match the rest of the way, but Lendl always seemed just out of grasp of McEnroe. The pro-Lendl crowd likely helped.
Lendl won 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5 in a match that took four hours and eight minutes. McEnroe's collapse opened the door for Lendl, who had been viewed by many critics as a player unable to win the big one. The 1984 win at Roland Garros quieted his dissenters and Lendl went on to win two more French Open titles to go along with three U.S. Open wins and two victories at the Australian Open.
Not only was it the excitement of an overnight sensation with a teenager handling the best players in the world on one of tennis' biggest stages, but Michael Chang winning the 1989 French Open as a 17-year-old changed the landscape of American tennis almost immediately.
In an ESPN article by Greg Garber in May 2009, 1990s star Jim Courier, was quoted as writing: "Michael [Chang] winning the tournament opened up my eyes, and probably Pete [Sampras]'s, too, as to what was immediately possible. Simply put, I knew if Michael could do it, I could."
Garber then points out:
"In the years that followed, the finest generation of American men easily outdistanced the Grand Slam totals of Connors and McEnroe, winning a total of 27 major titles -- Sampras (14), Agassi (8), Courier (4) and Chang (1). Martin would play his way into two Grand Slam finals and MaliVai Washington would reach one."
In 1989, Chang not only turned the tennis world on its head, but he also was the lightning rod that ignited some of America's best tennis players.
Here's a fun piece of trivia: According to the Official Site of Roland Garros, Yannick Noah was the last player to win a Grand Slam with a wooden racket.
He also was the last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros, all the way back in 1983.
With wooden racket in hand, he dispatched of Swede Mats Wilander 6–2, 6–3, 2–6, 7–6 (8-6) to become France's first winner in 37 years. In the often subdued sport of tennis, fans rushing the court isn't commonplace. While it was no frenzy of college fans pouring onto the hardwood, the French were in a celebrating mood after Noah won the title (this footage shows fans meeting Noah on the court).
Noah's championship is the greatest final in French Open history not only because of the significance of a Frenchman winning, but because he truly owned the French crowd on the way to his victory. Just like his son, NBA star Joakim, Noah knew how to captivate a crowd. And he did just that in winning France’s only French Open in the last 67 years.
With Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga giving hope to the French one more time, a win in the 2013 French Open would almost certainly make next year's 10 greatest finals list.