The 15 Greatest French Open Champions of the Open Era
Thoughts now turn to the red clay of Stade Roland Garros––the next Grand Slam championship on the calendar. The French Open begins on May 22 following the Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome.
The French Open has often presented obstacles to many of the top players. Pete Sampras never won on the red dirt nor did John McEnroe, although he came very lose in 1984.
Maria Sharapova could never capture this title, and the Williams sisters never found the dirt to their liking, although Serena Williams did win the title in 2002 with her sister Venus as the runner-up.
In all, eight men and seven women have won multiple championships since the Open Era began in 1968.
How do you measure the greatness of an athlete within their respective sport? What factors determine the degree of greatness over a period of time, be it years or decades?
Further, how do you determine who is number one in any given list or ranking?
First you must find a pattern and then you must determine the significant components of the ranking—does each factor merit being used as part of the overall equation? Sometimes it does, without question, like the score in a game. The highest or lowest score wins as in football or golf.
It is not always a simple task to determine who is the greatest because such discussions invariably have subjective components.
For this ranking, first consider the number of times a man or woman won the title. Add in as well the number of times a player made it to the French Open finals since 1968 (Open Era) as the initial demarcation of greatness.
To be considered the player must have won the French Open more than once since 1968.
It should be noted that Rod Laver did win this tournament twice in 1962 and 1969, once in the Open Era. He also made the finals in 1968.
Roger Federer made four consecutive finals from 2006-2009, winning the title once in 2009.
That just proves how difficult it can be to win this tournament multiple times as these 15 players have done.
15. Jan Kodes
Jan Kodes: Two French Open wins (1970, 1971)
Jan Kodeš born March 1, 1946, in Prague, Czechoslovakia was a right-handed former tennis player who won three Grand slam events in the early-1970s.
Unlike Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, Kodes never deserted his homeland, staying loyal to Czechoslovakia even during these early repressive years.
He won the Wimbledon Championship in 1973 defeating Alex Metreveli 6-1, 9-8, 6-3 despite his disdain for grass.
But Kodes's greatest success came on the clay courts at the French Open in Paris. He won the title there in 1970, beating Zelijko Franulovic in the final 6-2, 6-4, 6-0.
The following year in 1971, the Czech defeated Ilie Nastase in a hard fought final 8-6, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
Kodes reached his highest tour ranking of World No. 5 in September 1973.
During his career, he won a total of eight top-level singles titles and 17 doubles titles, but the red clay remained his favorite surface.
14. Jim Courier
Jim Courier: Two French Open wins, Three Finals
American Jim Courier won four grand slams in his career––two Australian Open and two French Open titles.
He also was the first American to be ranked World No. 1 since John McEnroe back in the mid 1980s.
Courier won the French Open Championship twice in back-to-back years, 1991 and 1992.
In 1991, Courier defeated fellow American Andre Agassi in a five set final 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. It marked Courier’s first grand slam win.
In 1993, Courier defeated Czech Petr Korda in the final 7-5, 6-2, 6-1.
Courier made the final once again in 1993, losing to Spaniard Sergi Bruguera in a grueling five set final 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
He was never able to make it back to the final after losing to Bruguera.
Courier’s overall winning percentage at the French Open is 81.63.
13. Sergi Bruguera
Sergi Bruguera: Two French Open wins, Three Finals
Spaniard Sergi Bruguera was a clay court specialist back in the days when there were such players who concentrated primarily on the red dirt.
Bruguera won twice on the grounds at Stade Roland Garros in consecutive years in 1993 and 1994.
He defeated American Jim Courier 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in 1993.
Then in 1994, Bruguera won over fellow Spaniard Alberto Berasategui 6-3, 7-5, 2-6, 6-1.
Bruguera appeared again in another French Open final in 1997, losing in straight sets 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to Gustavo Kuerten.
Brugera’s overall winning percentage for the French Open is 76.19.
12. Martina Navratilova
Martina Navratilova: Two French Open wins, Six Finals
Martina Navratilova, who appeared in six French Open finals, never truly loved the red clay.
Her serve-and-volley style of play, although successful at times on the red dirt, did not provide the Czech-American with enough weapons to stand toe-to-toe with the game’s best players rifling passing shots by her as they stood on the baseline on the opposite side of the net.
The red clay worked to neutralize Navratilova’s game, allowing additional time for her opponents to react and move into place—time very often not available on grass and hard courts.
Navratilova won at Stade Roland Garros twice in singles. In 1982, Navratilova defeated Andrea Jaeger, and in 1984, she finally overcame Chris Evert in straight sets during the French Open finals.
Navratilova is tied with Evert and Steffi Graf for appearing in four consecutive French Open finals.
Navratilova’s winning percentage is 82.3 percent (51-11) at the French Open championships, where she participated in 13 tournaments on the red clay.
11. Gustavo Kuerten
Gustavo Kuerten: Three French Open wins, Three finals
Gustavo Kuerten won three grand slam finals, and they were all on the red dirt of Stade Roland Garros.
Kuerten was a very popular champion whose love of playing on the red dirt was infectious.
His first win came against Spaniard Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in 1997.
The Brazilian won back to back title in 2000-2001.
Kuerten defeated Magnus Norman in 2000, 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 and Alex Corretja in 2001, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0.
Suffering numerous injuries throughout his career, Kuerten’s play on clay was regarded as brilliant, but his success was ultimately short lived.
Kuerten’s overall winning percentage for his French Open appearances is 81.8.
10. Monica Seles
Monica Seles: Three French Open Wins, Four Finals
Monica Seles won the French Open three times in four appearances. Her three wins, however, were consecutive from 1990 to 1992. She is tied for most consecutive wins for the ladies on tour with Justine Henin in the modern era.
Seles also holds the record for the youngest champion ever, at 16 years and six months. She won that first championship in 1990, defeating defending champion and world No. 1 Steffi Graf in the process.
Seles’ grunting became the talk of the tennis world early on. But it was the little Yugoslavian’s aggressive style of play and her early return of the ball that made her game so dominating in the early '90s.
Seles stepped into the court and hit the ball hard on the rise, which robbed her opponents of valuable time to react.
It was on the clay where her tactics reaped large dividends, giving her three championships. Moreover, Seles loved the crowds in Paris.
It was unfortunate that after Seles was stabbed on court in Germany in 1993; she never recaptured her winning form or her obvious joy on court.
Seles competed at the French Open 11 times. Her winning percentage stands at 87.1 percent (54-8).
9. Mats Wilander
Mats Wilander: Three French Open wins, Five finals
Swede Mats Wilander won the French Open three times in 1982, 1985 and 1988.
In 1982, Wilander surprised the tennis world by coming through unseeded as a teenager to defeat Guillermo Vilas in the final 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.
The young Swede was heralded as the next coming of Borg.
In 1985, Wilander managed to upend Ivan Lendl in the final of the French Open 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
Then again in 1988, Wilander met and defeated Frenchman Henri Leconte 7-5, 6-2, 6-1.
Additionally, Wilander made the French Open final in 1983, losing to Frenchman Yannick Noah 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 and again in 1987, losing to Ivan Lendl 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6.
Mats Wilander’s overall winning percentage at the French Open is 83.9.
8. Ivan Lendl
Ivan Lendl: Three French Open wins, Five Finals
Ivan Lendl finally won his first grand slam in 1984 by defeating American John McEnroe in the finals of the French Open after losing the first two sets 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.
It marked the beginning eight grand slam wins, with three of them coming at the French Open in Paris.
After his win in 1984, Lendl went on to win again in 1986 by defeating Swede Michael Pernfors in the final 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 and then again in 1987 by defeating Mats Wilander 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6.
Lendl was also the runner up to Bjorn Borg in 1981. It was Borg’s last French Open final.
Lendl was the runner-up to Mats Wilander in 1985 losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
Lendl’s overall winning percentage at the French Open is 81.5.
7. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario: Three French Open wins, Six Finals
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario made six trips to the finals at Stade Roland Garros, winning the French Open title three times in 1989, 1994 and 1998, where she defeated Steffi Graf, Mary Pierce and Monica Seles, respectively.
The fiery Spanish lady, nicknamed the "Barcelona Bumblebee" by the irascible Bud Collins, proved to be a handful to any opponent standing on the other side of the net.
Like a terrier, the tenacious Sanchez-Vicario refused to give up on a point, running down balls and fighting for each and every point as if her life depended on it. It was her all-out competitive spirit that Rafael Nadal parallels today. It made the young lady from Spain a winner.
At the time she won her first French Open title, Sanchez-Vicario was the youngest player ever to win it, at age 17.
Monica Seles, however, soon supplanted this record by winning her first French Open championship at age 16 years and six months the following year.
Sanchez-Vicario’s winning percentage is 83.7 percent (72-14).
6. Justine Henin
Justine Henin: Four French Open wins, Four Finals
Justine Henin first retired from tennis in May of 2008, just prior to the commencement of the French Open in Paris.
Henin was in line to win her fifth French Open title.
Everyone thought she would do exactly that until the Belgian stunned the tennis world by announcing her retirement from the game.
Out of retirement in 2010, Henin headed into action on the clay once again.
There was still no one who stood out as a challenger to Henin at the 2010 French Open championships.
But the Belgian failed to make the finals last year, even though many expected Henin to pick up her fifth French Open trophy. She lost in the fourth round.
Justine Henin’s game was made for the red dirt, where her pin-point accuracy and her mental acumen gave her the necessary edge over bigger and more powerful opponents.
Henin played smart aggressive tennis aided by a powerful one-handed backhand that allowed her more reach and more variety on that side.
Henin had competed in eight French Open tournaments, making it to four finals and winning all four, including three consecutive times from 2005 to 2007.
Her overall winning percentage at Stade Roland Garros stood at 90.5 percent (38-4).
5. Margaret Court
Margaret Court: Five French Open wins, Three wins in the Open Era
We made an exception in this listing for the lady from Australia, Margaret Court.
Margaret Court of Australia won the French Open three times in the modern era—1969, 1970 and 1973. Prior to the modern era, Court also won the French singles title in 1962 and 1964––five times in total.
In all, Court played in 10 French Open singles contests, but only four of those occurred in the modern era.
The Aussie phenom holds more records in the sport of tennis than any other player living or dead. She ruled the tennis world with her impressive career in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
Her career, however, spans two eras and puts her in both worlds.
Even considering only her marks in the modern era, Court still ranks very high when considering her appearances in French Open finals.
Court’s total winning percentage at the French Open in the modern era remains at 95.8 percent (23-1).
4. Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal: Five French Open wins, Five Finals.
Rafael Nadal is the only active player on our list. That means he is capable of rising higher in subsequent years.
To date, Nadal has won five French Open titles, beginning in 2005 when he won the title over Mariano Puerta on his first try on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros.
In 2006, Nadal met World No. 1 Roger Federer in the French Open final, defeating the Swiss 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6.
The following year in 2007, Federer and Nadal again met in the French Open finals with the Majorcan winning again 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Nadal won his fourth consecutive French Open final in 2008 by dismissing the Swiss in straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-0––the worst defeat in Federer’s distinguished career.
Nadal was dismissed in the fourth round of the French Open in 2009 by Swede Robin Soderling.
But Nadal came back to win the French Open title in 2010 by defeating Soderling in the final 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
Nadal’s overall winning percentage at the French Open is 97.44––the highest to date.
Most feel there is more to come and that very soon, Nadal will be No. 1 on this list.
3. Bjorn Borg
Bjorn Borg: Six French Open wins, Six Finals
Bjorn Borg won his first French Open Championship in 1974 on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros where he met and defeated Manuel Orantes 2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.
The Swede followed that up by winning the title the following year over Guillermo Vilas 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.
Borg came back to win in 1978 again over Argentine Vilas 6-1, 6-1, 6-3.
The Swede won the following year in 1979 by defeating Victor Pecci 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4.
In 1980, Borg triumphed again on the red dirt in Paris, defeating American Vitas Gerulaitis 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
Defeating Ivan Lendl in 1981, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, Borg won his final French Open championship.
He won every French Open final he reached.
The only man to defeat Borg on the clay courts of Paris was Adriano Panatta who won the French Open in 1976, defeating Borg in the quarterfinals. Panatta also defeated Borg in the fourth round of the French Open in 1973.
Borg’s overall winning percentage at the French Open men’s singles championships is 96.08.
2. Steffi Graf
Steffi Graf: Six French Open wins, Nine finals
Steffi Graf appeared in nine French Open finals, winning six of them over the course of her career. Like Chris Evert, the German is also considered a natural on the red clay.
Appearing in four consecutive finals at Stade Roland Garros from 1987 to 1990, Graf won two of them.
The German's last final came in 1999, when she defeated Martina Hingis in a memorable match with the young Swiss, suffering a huge meltdown after gaining what most would have surmised as an insurmountable lead.
Her win over Hingis marked Graf's final appearance at the French Open and was her last Grand Slam victory, the 22nd of her stellar career.
Graf used a superior service game combined with a lethal inside out forehand drive and a backhand slice to nullify her opponents.
Her foot speed on court also made it almost impossible to get anything past the wily German, who stalked the baseline, waiting to pounce.
Even her volleying skills were more than adequate on the red clay.
Graf appeared in the French Open Finals in 1987, '88, '89, '90, '92, '93, '95, '96 and '99.
Winning six in all, Graf’s winning percentage at the French Open is 89.7 percent (87-10).
1. Chris Evert
Chris Evert: Seven French Open wins, Nine Finals.
Chris Evert, in winning seven of nine final appearances, remains the undisputed leader on the clay at the French Open in Paris, surpassing even her male counterparts.
Clay brought out the strengths of Evert’s game—her patience, determination and her ability to construct points.
She was tireless and unflappable on the red clay at Stade Roland Garros—hence her nickname, the Iron Princess.
The fact that she owns the clay-court record with an 125-match win streak from 1973 to 1979 illustrates her prowess on the surface. During that run, she lost only seven sets.
It was the one surface on which Evert generally prevailed over her arch-rival Martina Navratilova, whose one weakness might have been the slow clay.
They met in four finals on the red dirt with Evert coming out on top in three—all Evert’s wins over the Czech were three-set finals.
In all, Evert appeared in nine finals at the French Open in 1973, '74, '75, '79, '80, '83, '84, '85 and '86, winning them all, except in 1973 and 1984.
Evert’s winning percentage stands at 92.4 percent (73-6).