As the French Open looms, the tennis world looks over to Paris for the season's second grand slam tournament. Records are out to be broken, and our era is not one for the light-hearted.
We have legitimate grand slam champions in our sights, and legitimate GOAT contenders, too. It would profit to indulge in some nostalgia.
We have, of course, Rafael Nadal's sixth title poised for the taking, or the possibility of a changing in the guard with a new champion. The tennis past has not been too different. There have been bearers of expectation and those who have stunned the world with inconceivable surprises.
The Open Era is, naturally, the most happening period, but there are some from ancient history and some who traversed the middle period before and after.
Here are just a selection in chronological order of the top men's champions. Some omissions may be noticeable, but they have been chosen for their consistency at Roland Garros and stature within the game in general.
Max Decugis is probably one of the names in tennis less-known, but he is famous in the record books. Obviously, that is where anyone is ever likely to encounter him, although what he did achieve in the earliest days of the tournament at Paris was remarkable.
From 1903 to 1914 Decugis won the French Open eight times, in 1903, 1904, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1912, 1913 and 1914.
It is one of those achievements, much like William Renshaw's six straight Wimbledons, which is unlkely to ever be equalled.
Of course, Decugis played when few others really were. He was, nonetheless, one of the very long-lived and may turn out to be the longest lived French Open champion for a while, dying in 1978 (as Borg was racking up his own Open Era records) at 95.
Moving ahead some half a century, and two World Wars later, we find an Australian, a master from the New World, taking the tennis world by storm.
Of course, the magnitude of his achievements were never quite as fully appreciated as they are today, but there is little denying that his two victories at the French Open, in 1962 and 1969, were by far the most significant.
For one reason. They enabled him to win the Calendar Grand Slam in precisely those years. The feat has not been one repeated since 1969, as close as challengers have come.
Moreover, these two victories mark him as the only player to have won the French Open in both the Amateur and Open Eras.
The feats of Rod Laver, however, were to be overshadowed for a short while in the late 1970s and early '80s, with the emergence of Bjorn Borg as the preeminent force in men's tennis in the years 1976-1980.
The cool, calm Swede, known colloquially as the 'Ice-Man', dominated the European Grand Slams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. In all, he won six French Opens, three of which were accompanied by a win at Wimbledon. His six wins are still unmatched in the Open Era.
Unbeatably consistent on the red clay, Borg would only lose twice at Paris and both times to the same man, Adriano Panetta, in 1973 and 1976.
In the 1980s, the Czech Ivan Lendl came close to being the decade's Borg. His achievements, priding himself on his consistency, were quite remarkable and often overlooked. His records at Roland Garros are no different.
It began ominously, or perhaps auspiciously, when he reached the final in 1981, losing to Bjorn Borg, in the Swede's last ever title in Paris. He would come close to losing in 1984 against John McEnroe, but that match turned his career pretty much upside down.
Returning from two sets to love he would clinch his first grand slam title and begin a run of four straight finals, winning three, from 1984-1987.
His machine-like consistency and power from the baseline proved too much in these years. The annals of Roland Garros would have lost much without him.
While Lendl thundered atop tennis, Mats Wilander provided something of a balancing act at Roland Garros. Playing with a similar consistent, powerful baseline game, he also managed five finals in Paris (1982-3, 1985, 1987-8), and likewise, three wins (1982, 1985, 1988).
It was the 1985 final, between precisely these two players, which made the difference for Wilander. He won that match and would go on to upend the unforgiving Czech in 1988, winning three of the four majors, and coming close to completing a calendar grand slam.
His records aren't quite as tidy and don't run off the tongue as well, but there is some case to be made for him being the 1980s second Borgesque Swede.
There are a few players here with just one title at the French, although none will perhaps be quite as well-remembered in Paris as this one. Yannick Noah won the title in 1983, defeating defending champion Mats Wilander, and in doing so, he became France's first champion in 37 years.
In all, it was a characteristically French performance in that final, with three stylish, athletic blitzy three sets of serve-and-volley overcoming the patience and defense of the grinder Wilander.
It capped off a dream week for Noah and Franc, and has stood by in French tennis, and sport in general, as one the enduring symbols of patriotism and sporting glory. France yet waits in 2011 for a repeat performance, 28 years on.
Jim Courier was in many ways the player who opened up the new decade of the 1990s, and, it may be gone so far as to be said, the last two decades. There had been power tennis in the 1980s, but it had been balanced nicely with career serve-and-volleyers.
Courier's game, however, was far more viciously aggressive, which would suit him well on the slow, baseline-centred courts of Paris and Melbourne. He reached the French Open final thrice in a row, from 1991-3, winning his first two.
While his reign at Roland Garros would only last as long, Courier had drawn the curtains on a new chapter in men's tennis, with the emergence of the 1990s first great American champions. The US, from that point, would ascend slowly to the top of the game.
Going back to Michael Chang, who won the French Open in 1989, is a regression, but while it may have foreshadowed the emergence of Courier, his sole victory in Paris that year has statistical, historic value that transcends the prominence of national sporting achievement.
In winning the title in 1989 at the age of 17 years and three months, he became the youngest winner not only of Roland Garros, but of any Grand Slam, ever.
It was a unique feat. He had come close to losing to Lendl in the fourth round, but denied the Czech a sixth final with some wily tennis—an underhanded serve and strange court positionings, among the attempts at remedying a cramp.
They worked, miraculously, and Chang found himself a week later playing for the title, a match he would win against Stefan Edberg in five sets. As a player, he was much in the mould of Wilander, as a consistent, hardy baseliner, and it would earn him a second final in 1995.
It is for being the youngest winner ever, however, that he is best remembered.
In Andre Agassi, we encounter the first of the modern era's truly great, and tragic, French Open champions. His was a game that had proven itself on all surfaces—as of his first victory in Paris in 1999, he had reached the final of all four grand slams, with wins in all save at Roland Garros.
It never became quite an obsession but can hardly have brooked well with him. In 1999 he was a two-time losing finalist, having reached that round in 1990 and 1991. At the same time he was enduring a low point in his career, ranked out of the top 100 and attempting to find the next big thing as a tennis player.
The next big thing came in Paris that year, when he fought his way to the final and came back from a two-set deficit to defeat Andrei Medvedev in five sets. It was his first victory at the grand slam and one which entered his name in the annals of history. Tt completed a career grand slam for the American.
It was his last final but his most memorable and effectively propelled him to the last, most productive years of his career in the 2000s.
South America has always provided excellent clay-courters, but few had actually won the greatest tournament in clay-court tennis in 1997. It was Gustavo Kuerten who put an end to that trend in this year, winning from that point three of the next five titles.
In all, he is one of the few multiple champions of the French Open never to have lost a final, and indeed might well have played the role of a minor Borg or Nadal in the earlier years of the decade. With a one-handed backhand, he was also a temporary reversion to the more classical, stylish eras of the pre-1990s.
His reign in Paris was not just the interlude of a minor, however. In 2004, some years after his last victory, he faced the new world No. 1, Roger Federer, in the third round. Many anticipated a routine victory by the Swiss over a dying light.
But no—champions are made of champion stuff. The Brazilian, known more affectionately as "Guga," downed Federer in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Roger Federer's defeat to Kuerten in 2004 would turn out but a minor hiccup in a career-defining season, but for reasons which would become apparent in later years, should at that moment have rankled.
The Swiss world No. 1, who had thought himself a man with many more chances to clinch the Musketeers' Cup, would only lift the trophy five years later.
His passage to the title in 2009 was not easy, but it had been halted four years in a row by the same man, in precisely the years between 2004 and 2009 when Spain's Rafael Nadal, who would prove his greatest rival.
In 2009, however, the Spaniard had lost in the fourth round, and the title, suddenly, was within Federer's grasp.
Enduring gruelling tussles, he marched on to the final and there downed Swede Robin Soderling—a gigantic remaking of Borg—in straight sets. In doing so, he had achieved more than merely win the French Open; like Agassi, he completed the much coveted career grand slam, silencing critics over his legacy in tennis.
While we are wont to praise Federer for all he has achieved in grand slam tennis, we will likely never ever forget Rafael Nadal, who provided the greatest challenge to the Swiss' tennis regime, and ultimately prevailed.
Most remarkable about his young, albeit already a stellar career, is his record at Roland Garros. In five wins, he is 38-1 in matches at the French Open, having been 28-0 at the start of the 2009 season. He is the five-time champion and the defending champion from last year.
Only one man, Robin Soderling, has ever found the solution to defeating Nadal on the slow clay of Paris— hitting right through him, as hard as a man can hit.
It would take that, for Nadal is, for the most part, a hero, or even a god, on this surface. He continues to amaze the tennis world with his astounding records on clay and looks to further improve on them at this year's tournament.
Nadal is the ultimate French Open champion of our generation, a true living legend.