French Open 2011: The Top 10 Breakout Performances

Marcus ChinCorrespondent IMay 18, 2011

French Open 2011: The Top 10 Breakout Performances

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    The French Open has been host throughout the decades to some of tennis' greatest players. Often the winner of the French Open has proven to be the next up and coming great force in the sport.

    Perhaps its something about the arduous, grueling nature of clay court Grand Slam tennis, but there is no doubt that working one's way through the main draw of Roland Garros, and ultimately winning it, is a long and drawn-out feat accomplished not without much determination and tenacity.

    There have been great men and women who have played this sport, and on many an occasion the first dawnings of their brilliant careers were to be found on the red clay of Paris.

    We have had Evert, Seles, Ivanovic; Borg, Chang, Nadal. These are but some of the names that have graced clay court tennis, and tennis in general.

    What characterised their rises was a certain something mystical: something surprising, stunning, shocking. Breakouts are dramatic, suspenseful, and often incredible.

    Here are the top 10 breakout performances in Roland Garros history.

Juan Martin Del Potro 2009

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    Our most recent breakout at the French Open is that of the Argentine, Juan Martin Del Potro, in 2009. Indeed, of all in this list, he is the only one not yet to have won the French, although he actually came mighty close.

    It couldn’t have been more fortuitously, or fatefully, executed. 2009 was a fell year in the fortunes of the Federer and Nadal rivalry, as the pair would only meet once. Federer had crushed Del Potro at the Australian Open for the loss of just three games, but the Argentine was clearly worth more than that.

    In the months that followed he steadied his progress, and a win over Nadal at Miami proved something of a catalyst to greater things. The beast grew, ever so slowly, and reared it monstrous head at Roland Garros in 2009.

    Nadal fell, and Roger struggled, but there was Del Potro, raising the flag for the giants brigade – headed at this time by Soderling, who had earned the biggest scalp of all (defeating Nadal).

    The Argentine made short work of all his opponents. There was simply something mesmerising about the consistency of deadly spade-like flat forehands – they were fearsome in their murderousness.

    Local favourite Tsonga was blown to bits, his serve battered and tattered; then, of course, came Federer. Now the mighty favourite for a first French Open title, he stood in the way of a final placement for the Argentine.

    Of course, Federer won that match, but not without much persistence, patience, and sheer brilliance. The Swiss proved too tough a shell to crack in the fifth set, but five sets it did go.

    At moments, Del Potro seemed invincible; but as much of a disappointment this loss may have been, it was a sign of things to come.

    His French Open semifinal in 2009 stands still as the last time Federer defeated the Argentine...nearly two years ago.

    That year already, Del Potro went on to greater things, winning the US Open, for example, in beating Federer again, but only managing to win where he had lost in Paris.

    For him, more is yet to come, from a start so promising at Roland Garros.

Ana Ivanovic 2008

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    2008 witnessed a period of revolution in tennis. It was not long-lived, but dramatic and consuming enough, that it was named for the nationality of its key constituents - the Serbian Surge.

    Novak Djokovic had claimed the nation's first-ever grand slam earlier in the year at Melbourne, and by the time the French Open came about, it was the turn of the women to bask in glory.

    It was Ana Ivanovic, who had incidentally reached the Australian Open final, who would claim the accolades. There was nothing too surprising about her victory in Paris in 2008; only to say that it was as predictable as it seemed destined.

    Her run through this tournament was nothing, nonetheless, short of a breakthrough. It must have been like something out of a fairy tale for her, to have crushed her way through the draw with serve and forehand unerring. So rarely has someone stomped so quickly to dominance mode.

    Just about her only challenge came in a tough three-set semifinal against fellow countrywoman, Jelena Jankovic. Only a Serbian, it seemed, have might stopped a Serbian that fortnight.

    It seemed fitting that Ivanovic capped off a dream two weeks with the title, and she fairly raced to victory over Dinara Safina in the final.

    While her woes ever since (she has failed to reach so much as a grand slam semifinal since her triumph here) might mar her legacy, much is there to be said about the pressure of reputation.

    It was here, in her 2008 breakthrough, that she indisputably earned that.

Jim Courier 1991

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    If there were ever a player who only briefly, but for that brief time introduced a new dynamic to tennis, it must have been Jim Courier.

    While he wasn't the only one in the late 80s and early 90s to play a baseline power game (Andre Agassi did, too), he was certainly the quickest to success of those who did.

    In 1991 he won his first French Open title, most significantly, against Andre Agassi, in a duel of the baseliners of the future.

    Unfortunately for Agassi, the 1991 final wasn't to prove his breakthrough. As much as many had touted him as the next most likely champion in Paris, Agassi wouldn't win the title for another eight years; instead, it was his fellow countryman, Jim Courier, who would steal the limelight for the moment.

    Coming back from a two sets to one deficit, Courier fought to a furious five-set victory, 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. It wasn't just a one-time triumph, though; Courier indeed went on to defend his title the following year, and reach the final again in 1993.

    Courier is a slight unknown in tennis' hall of fame...but he is not there without good reason.

    Indeed, his French Open victory in 1991 set him on the road to reaching the finals of all four grand slams before he was 23, and indeed towards three more major championships.

Ivan Lendl 1984

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    Prior to his victory in 1984, Ivan Lendl had lost three grand slam finals, and looked on the path to being the great underachiever of the 1980s.

    He had, without doubt, a big game. With a big serve, and imposing groundstrokes, his seemed just suited fine to the clay of Roland Garros. He had already lost a five-set final to Bjorn Borg in 1981, and three years later, was again within touching distance of the title.

    There he met John McEnroe, who was having the season of his life, and was looking to add a French Open crown to his victories at Wimbledon and the US Open.

    Quickly, he was up two sets to love, and serving at 4-2. For Lendl, another woeful loss in a slam final beckoned.

    Somehow, in a moment of inspiration, the big Czech broke back, and managed to scrape the third set. Then, he managed to edge the fourth. Soon, and beyond all belief, winning the whole thing seemed within possibility.

    It was a comeback of the most momentous and unique proportions, when Lendl ultimately prevailed, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.

    Ever so dramatically, the power balance in tennis had shifted. Ivan Lendl had announced his arrival on the tennis scene, beginning a run of four straight French Open finals.

Steffi Graf 1987

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    1987 paid witness to the first big statement of a German great...Steffi Graf.

    In the French Open final that year the 18-year-old Graf met veteran Martina Navratilova in what promised to be a classic battle between old and new, youth and experience. Graf, indeed, had won six tournaments in 1987 leading up to the French, but had yet to claim her maiden grand slam.

    Against Navratilova, it looked like too tall a task. The Czech turned American was a two time champion at Roland Garros, and a seven time champion at Wimbledon. Already, hers had been a career of dreams, and she looked to extend her dominance over an upstart Graf.

    But Graf had already beaten her in 1987, and it wasn't going to be easy. A tough and well-contested battle it indeed proved to be, with both splitting sets, and going deep in a third, for a thrilling, suspenseful finish to the French Open.

    It was Graf who prevailed in the end, perhaps having that little extra over her older opponent, winning 6-4, 4-6, 8-6.

    For Graf a breakout couldn't have been more satisfying - one over a great of tennis. It was from such a victory at Roland Garros in 1987 that she would go on to carve her own picture of greatness, going on to win another 21 grand slams - surpassing Navratilova - in a career of fertility without precedent.

Rafael Nadal 2005

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    Rafael Nadal's run on clay, and most of all at Roland Garros, needs no introduction.

    Without doubt, he is the player of our generation at this tournament - a five-time champion, with two victories without the loss of a set, and only one loss here, ever. One couldn't get much better than that.

    But when did it all start? Surely, Nadal too, couldn't possibly have appeared out of thin air.

    His run to his first title here, in 2005, however, has all the makings of a fateful, predestined triumph. In 2004 he had been sidelined by injury, and wasn't able to play; he returned in 2005, however, never having played at this tournament, with several clay Masters tournaments under this belt.

    The clay king all had been waiting for, it seemed, had arrived on earth at last. Nadal pounded his way tot eh semifinals, and there faced none other than Roger Federer, the world No. 1.

    It was their first meeting here, and many have wondered since whether this match was the more crucial than the final which eventuated against Puerta.

    It was a four-set classic, with Nadal finally having too much for the Swiss to handle; Federer's dreams were crushed, and Nadal earned his first big win over his rival at a grand slam.

    Needless to say, it propelled him to new heights in the final, and he dispatched of Mariano Puerta, after a shaky start, in four sets. The Rafael Nadal era had begun.

Mats Wilander 1982

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    Some seven years before Michael Chang's astonishing win, the tennis world had witnessed the flourish of a Swede at Roland Garros.

    Not that the Parisians hadn't, by 1982, gotten used to a Swede winning the title - Bjorn Borg had won six of the last eight. But in 1982, Borg was nowhere to be seen. In his wake there was new blood: Mats Wilander.

    Wilander's campaign was in every sense a breakout. He was neither a favourite, nor indeed a well-seasoned player. At just 17, he hadn't even won a career title yet, and indeed was only playing in his third grand slam tournament.

    Yet how generous indeed the tennis gods may be to the young. Wilander proved just the Nordic Viking, cutting down to size three top five players: Ivan Lendl (2), Vitas Gerulaitis (5), and Guillermo Vilas (3), in the last four rounds.

    Overcoming a breadstick first set in the final, he came back to storm through the third and fourth sets to down Vilas, 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.

    With the win Wilander became the youngest player (before 1985) to win a grand slam, and also the quickest, having played only three majors.

    It was not just a fluke, however; the mini-Borg would come back to win Roland Garros twice more, and amass over his career seven grand slam titles.

Monica Seles 1990

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    For Monica Seles in 1990, only a big win would have sufficed.

    Indeed, only a big win would really legitimise her position in the sport. She was intruding on sacred territory at the French Open, when she faced Steffi Graf in the final in that year.

    She was the two-time champion, and had been the undisputed queen of tennis in the few years before, having won a calendar grand slam, and 8 of the last 9 grand slams.

    But Seles was proving a force to be reckoned with. With punishing double-handed groundstrokes from both wings, she certainly had the power and mindset to trouble Graf.

    So, indeed, it proved in the final, as she battled to a straight sets win in an upset victory, 7-6, 6-4. Graf was for the moment still the queen,  but she had found a legitimate challenger, who could expose and exploit the relative insufficiencies of her one-handed backhand.

    Moreover, she had become the youngest-ever winner of a grand slam, at the tender age of 16. The 1990 French Open was a pivotal moment in women's tennis, witnessing the rise of a Seles, and an intriguing rivalry with Graf.

Michael Chang 1989

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    Michael Chang's victory in 1989 would be relegated by most to the realm of the legendary and impossible.

    It was almost inconceivable how a 17-year-old was able to outwit and outlast the greatest players of the 1980s, and to do so at a grand slam.

    Chang would put down his victory that year to some sort of inner determination, some sense that he absolutely had to win. Maybe it was destiny, but some part of it must surely be due to a mad, almost surreal daring.

    In his most notorious match against Ivan Lendl in the fourth round, he produced some stunning play - an underhanded serve, and disconcerting court positionings, just to get his imposing opponent off-balance.

    He fought his way through a cramp that match, and contrived a double fault from Lendl on the final point to pull off an unthinkable upset.

    He made his way to the final, and there downed, to the amazement of all, a five-set victory over Stefan Edberg. There, Michael Chang, was the first American victor at Roland Garros, and the youngest too, at barely 18 years of age.

    He was a master of the baseline, and rock-solid, but his David vs. Goliath effort against Lendl in 1989 will never be forgotten, or imitated. Never, moreover, had such a match paved the way to grand slam glory.

Gustavo Kuerten 1997

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    The French Open has seen the youngest champions in grand slam history, in Chang, and its most prodigal, in Wilander. Clearly, it is a venue for the youthful ambitious.

    The same goes for Gustavo Kuerten, who won in 1997, quite, again, to the surprise of many, as one of its few unseeded winners, and, like Wilander, a winner in his third major attempt.

    Something was in the air that week, and something about the clay, too, that seems throughout the history of Roland Garros to have spawned the miraculous. The Australian Open has spawned many surprise finalists, but scarcely as many have won there as those who have at Paris (Wilander, Noah, Gaudio).

    Kuerten earned his win, though. He beat many top-notch fellows, Thomas Muster (once king of clay), Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Sergi Bruguera. Of course, he would prove far more able than all three at Roland Garros. Even with his win in 1997 he wasn't satisfied, and would go on to claim two more titles.

    Kuerten, moreover, belongs in the happy company of those who have won multiple French Opens without ever having lost a final: in fact, the very happy company of Borg, and thus far, Rafael Nadal. He would hold his head up high.

    'Guga', as Kuerten was more colloquially known, has a place among the famous, and greats, of the game. Roland Garros was where the magic began, and while it faded in 2008, in a straight sets defeat to Paul-Henri Mathieu, he did once beat Roger Federer in straights, too, in 2004 - now only a true great could have done that.