Ever since the French National Championship opened its doors to the world beyond its borders in 1925, it has challenged the weak, rewarded the durable, and cut its own unique path through the tennis history books.
In 1968, it was the first Slam to open to amateurs and professionals.
In 1981, it introduced its own additional awards: the Prix Orange for sportsmanship and the Prix Citron for strength of character.
Initially held on grass, it is now the only Slam on clay, and marks the culmination of the unique sweep of three consecutive Masters tournaments on the same surface.
The special properties of the clay—slower, higher bouncing, requiring exceptional strength from the back of the court, and remarkable footwork to shunt back and forth—have ensured that many of the great players of the Open era failed in this one Slam. In particular, the exponents of the serve-and-volley game, such as Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker all failed at Roland Garros.
But despite the fact that the colors of the Tricolore flew over the French tournament from 1892 until the end of the Second World War—except for the pre-war years—France has only managed one male champion since 1945: Yannick Noah. And there have been just three females, only one of them in the Open era: Mary Pierce.
This, therefore, is a celebration of the champions who made the clay of Roland Garros their playground, and the countries that have, for a time, gained a foothold on French soil: its terre battue.
Two nations feature twice, for both men and women. The first of those is Spain.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was just 17 when she took her first title in 1989, a record at the time. She won two more, in 1994 and in 1998.
Sanchez Vicario was also runner-up three times—in 1991 to Monica Seles, and in 1995 and 1996 to Steffi Graf. But the Spaniard scored wins over each of them, too. Indeed, she challenged the great Graf more thoroughly than many other players ever managed.
The 17-year-old Sanchez Vicario beat Graf 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 in that first Slam. In 1995, her loss to Graf was also a three-setter, and in 1996, she lost the match in a nail-biting 10-8 final set.
It still stands as a French Open women’s record both in the number of games played and time on court: over three hours.
Sanchez Vicario was the archetypal clay court exponent—and pay attention to this description from Bud Collins as you tick off the following champions, for it establishes a constant theme!
She was “unceasing in determined pursuit of tennis balls, none seeming too distant to be retrieved in some manner and returned again and again to demoralize opponents.”
For these qualities, she earned the moniker with which she is still associated, “the Barcelona Bumblebee.”
Other female Spanish honors: Runners-up, 2000, Conchita Martinez.
Guillermo Vilas reached four French finals, and lost three of them to Swedes: Bjorn Borg in 1975 and 1978 and Mats Wilander 1982.
But in 1977 he meted out a double bagel to the luckless Brian Gottfried, 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 to take his only French title.
The “Bull of the Pampas” was a charismatic, popular man. The first Grand Slam winner from Argentina, he was feted in his homeland, but managed to bring the house down wherever he played (most famously with his win over Jimmy Connors in the last championship match every played at Forest Hills).
He still sports luxuriant long hair that in his heyday was bound by the now commonplace bandanna. This strong, fit, and patient left-hander typically wore down opponents with his energy-sapping top-spin baseline game. That final against Wilander, for example, is the longest ever men’s final at Paris, four and three-quarter hours, but comprised just four sets: 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Incidentally, Vilas still also holds the best winning record there: 56 wins from 73 matches.
Other male Argentine honors: Winner, 2004, Gaston Gaudio; Runners-up, 2004, Guillermo Coria; 2005 Mariano Puerta.
For the entire 1960s, and into the early 1970s, one country dominated tennis like no other: Australia. While the men’s tour had Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, the women’s had one of the greatest ever to play the game, Margaret Court.
She had won 13 singles Slams in the closed era, but so long and dominating was her career that she added another 11 in the Open era, including three French titles in 1969, 1970 and 1973. In the last of these, the 30-year-old Australian mother beat the 20-year-old Chris Evert, in a grueling 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.
Court was a tall and powerful woman who, notable in her day, was willing to put in gym and road time to develop her physical strength and coordination. By nature a serve-and-volley player, she nevertheless could adapt to long and powerful rallies: ideal at Roland Garros.
Court was just as successful in doubles, and her tally across singles and doubles, amateur and pro eras, is a championship record of 13.
Only one word will suffice, in an appropriately French accent: formidable!
Other female Australian honors: Winner, 1971, Evonne Goolagong Cawley; beat fellow Australian Runners-up, 1971, Helen Gourlay Cawley; 1972, Goolagong Cawley.
Ivan Lendl was a slow-burner. Although he’d reached the French final in 1981, going down in five sets to Borg, and had won two Tour End Finals, his first Slam did not come until Paris 1984, and what a final it was.
Down two sets to McEnroe, Lendl started to break up the American’s net play with lobs and powerful cross-court angles. He pulled back from a 4-2 deficit in the third set to win the title 3–6, 2–6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, six years after taking the junior title. It is still the longest Open era men’s final, notching up 51 games.
The Lendl brand of tennis added weight and machine-like power to the top-spin baseline game of clay court master Borg. He also developed rigorous training regimes that, combined with remarkable consistency, enabled him to build up a match winning percentage greater than 90 percent during his heyday.
He won two more French titles: in 1986 and 1987, and was runner-up in 1985.
Other male Czech honors: Winner, 1970 and 1971, Jan Kodes; Runner-up, 1992, Petr Korda.
Germany has a remarkable French record in the Open era, and it’s almost entirely down to just one woman.
When she won her first title at Roland Garros in 1987, Steffi Graf was the youngest ever to do so: a month short of 18. Nine years later, and fighting for her fifth title, she was part of the longest ever women’s final against the boundless energy of Sanchez Vicaro: 6-3, 6-7, 10-8.
Graf was one of the most complete players of the Open era. Her fluidity, all-court game and mighty forehand captured almost every record going. She became the only tennis player to win every Major at least four times, including the “Golden Grand Slam” in 1988.
There was barely a final between her first win in 1987 and her last win in 1999 in which she did not participate, and she finished with the best winning record, man or woman, at Roland Garros: 84 wins out of 94 matches.
With six French titles from nine finals, she retired as one of the most garlanded of French singles champions.
Other female German honors: Runners-up, 1970, Helga Niessen Masthoff; 1981, Sylvia Hanika.
The United States is the second country to feature both men and women in the most successful countries in Paris.
The most successful man, Jim Courier, won his first Grand Slam in 1991, and it launched him into an outstanding hot run that lasted more than two years: six Slam finals leading to four titles.
That first breakthrough Slam was in Paris where he defeated Edberg and Michael Stich on his way to the final. There he met fellow American Andre Agassi and beat him in five sets: 3–6, 6–4, 2–6, 6–1, 6–4.
Courier defended his title the next year but, in 1993, he lost in the final to Sergi Bruguera 6–4, 2–6, 6–2, 3–6, 6–3.
Although he reached the semis the next year, he made little more impression on the championships. But the style of his achievements made their mark, combining as it did a determined work ethic with a big baseline game.
Less fluid a mover than the most successful French champions, he nevertheless had those essential tools: a big forehand and a pummeling double-handed backhand.
The pugnacious spirit is now put to effective use as one of the most fearless commentators on the international networks.
Other male U.S.A. honors: Winners, 1989, Michael Chang; 1999, Andre Agassi; Runners-up, 1976, Harold Solomon; 1977, Brian Gottfried; 1984, John McEnroe; 1980, Vitas Gerulaitis; 1990 and 1991, Andre Agassi.
One man in the Open era has become synonymous with the French Open: the only man, thus far, to win the title six times. Bjorn Borg
Just as the Australian flag blanketed the record books from the 1950s up to the transition to the Open era, so the blue and gold of the Swedish flag dominated much of the landscape from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, and extended its reach well into the 1990s in the elegant form of Edberg.
But it was the apparently emotionless, ice-cool, ice-blond figure of Borg who led the way, and set the records that those who followed had to chase.
He won his first in a big five-set battle against Manual Orantes, at exactly 18 years old, making him the youngest winner until fellow Swede Wilander shaved three months off in his own first win.
Borg’s final French title in 1981 was just as long, a five-set battle between two of the fittest men ever to lift rackets. Borg beat Lendl in a seesaw thriller 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1. But Borg went on to lose in the finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and left tennis for good.
The wiry, fast, supremely athletic Swede was one of the first men to dominate from the baseline with heavy topspin, and one of the earliest to use a double-handed backhand. They are the physical and stylistic inheritance of the best clay court men since, one of whom has his eye on that French Open record...Rafael Nadal.
They are, thus far, the only two men to win the title without dropping a set since it’s been played as best of five throughout. Borg has done it twice. Nadal has done it once. The clock may be ticking on that record too.
Other male Sweden honors: Winners, 1982, 1985 and l988, Wilander; Runners-up, 1983 and 1987, Wilander; 1986, Mikael Pernfors; 1989, Edberg; 2000, Magnus Norman; 2009, Robin Soderling.
The clay may not have been her metier, but here she is, the all-time record-breaker again: Martina Navratilova.
It may not be altogether surprising that she won a clutch of doubles titles at Roland Garros—seven women’s and two mixed—for she dominated doubles at all the Grand Slams with a total of 41 titles. But her success in the singles there says as much about her determination and her innate all-round skill as any of her achievements.
One measure is the span across which she reached finals.
Her first was in 1975, when she lost to the woman who would become her greatest rival, Chris Evert. The last was in 1987, by which time she had to play the new wunderkind of women’s tennis, Steffi Graf.
In both matches, as well as in her other two final losses—both to Evert—the matches went the full distance. No other woman beaten by Evert at Roland Garros managed more than three games.
The other measure of Navratilova is that she won the title twice, in 1982 and 1984, both is easy straight sets, and both to clay-court specialists (Evert and Andrea Jaeger). And she failed to reach the quarterfinals only once in 10 entries to the singles event.
Navratilova’s athletic game, an attacking style that brought her to the net at every opportunity, her classic use of cross-court slice, and the swinging left handed serve should not have worked. But for this unique champion, nothing was impossible.
And so to Spain’s second entry, for the tennis nation that is currently all-powerful on the men’s tour.
Multiple Davis Cup champions, and with seven men ranked high enough to be Grand Slam seeds, the Spanish floodgates opened back in 1993, with back-to-back wins by Sergi Bruguera.
But since 2005, it’s been all about one man, Rafael Nadal, who celebrated his 19th birthday by winning his first French title at his first attempt. It began an unbroken streak of 31 matches, a record.
And in Nadal, all those qualities that have brought clay court success to so many before him, are combined in near-perfect balance. Superb athleticism and speed, the heaviest of top-spin baseline game, powerful on both wings, and with an unquenchable desire to win.
He now has other tools in his arsenal, too, such as Navratilova’s sliced backhand, Graf’s forward mobility and angled forehand, Borg’s willingness to attack the net to prevent his opponent from doing so.
And still Nadal evolves, adding the tactical sharpness of the best clay-courter of them all, Chris Evert.
Other male Spanish honors: Winners, 1972, Andres Gimeno; 1993 and 1994, Bruguera; 1998, Carlos Moya; 2002, Albert Costa; 2003, Juan Carlos Ferrero; Runners-up,1974, Manuel Orantes; 1994, Alberto Berasategui; 1997, Sergi Bruguera; 1998 and 2001, Alex Corretja; 2002, Ferrero.
* includes Navratilova after she gained US citizenship
Those American stats outstrip every other nation in the Open era of the French championships. The sobering side of the stats is that 15 of those finalists were two women: Navratilova and her ultimate rival, Chris Evert.
But what Navratilova was to Wimbledon, Evert was to Roland Garros. She won the singles title a record seven times, three of them in three-set finals against Navratilova.
The last of them, in 1986, saw the 31-year-old Evert beat her to win her very last Grand Slam, 2–6, 6–3, 6–3. She is still the oldest woman to do so.
Add into the Evert mix two runners-up positions, the first against the mighty Margaret Court in 1973, and three semifinal finishes, and it is easy to be swamped by the numbers.
But Evert was one of those graceful and gracious players who went about her business with a calmness verging on cool. She was light on her feet, appeared never to be rushed, and had a smoothness of action that belied the weight and spin on her strong baseline shots.
Evert may have gloried in the name of the “Ice Maiden,” just as her effortless male counterpart did to the “Ice Borg,” but both commanded a respect and an affection from the crowds that reflected not just their supreme skills as tennis players, but their self-effacing and sporting conduct.
Great champions, both.
Other female U.S.A. honors: Winners,1968, Nancy Richey; 1972, Billie Jean King; 2001, Jennifer Capriati; 2002, Serena Williams; Runners-up, 1982, Jaeger; 1993, Mary Joe Fernandez; 1998, Monica Seles; 2002, Venus Williams.