French Open Memories : The Day Steffi Graf Became French

Gregory LanzenbergCorrespondent IMay 17, 2011

5 Jun 1999: Steffi Graf of Germany celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating Martina Hingis of Switzerland to win the women's singles final of the French Open Tennis at Roland Garros, Paris.
Al Bello/Getty Images

The 1999 French Open ladies finals saw three players on the court : Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, and the French crowd.

Hingis was 19 years old and number one in the world, while Graf was playing in the last tournament of her amazing career on the eve of her 30th birthday.

In what could be one the most dramatic finals in the history of the game on the ladies side, Steffi Graf managed to come back from a set and a break in the second to beat Martina Hingis 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Hingis had the opportunity to close the match when she was serving at 5-4, but failed to finish it off.

Most of the time, players stay focused and don't pay too much attention to the crowd, but the fact that they didn't is part of why this 1999 final was so special.

If the fans hadn't turned against against the top-seeded Swiss, Hingis would have claimed the only Grand Slam trophy missing from her resume.

However, that night Graf proved once more that she was one of the greatest tennis player of all time.

Hingis, who also lost in the final of the French Open to Iva Majoli in 1997, was craving a win that day, but her nerves and the crowd proved to be her downfall.

That day, Graf captured her sixth French Open title and 22nd slam singles championship, leaving her two titles short of Margaret Smith Court's record of 24.

After the match, Graf shared her feelings towards the French public, something she had never done before : "Today," she said, "I feel French."

Graf also took the opportunity to mark the end of her tremendous career, another reason why the match was so emotional for the sport.

There had been a little too much crowd involvement for Hingis. She had been unprepared, she said, for the task of fighting both Graf and the fans that day. ''I let it get to me,'' she said.

Hingis was one reprimand from a default after she received a racquet abuse warning and a point penalty in the second set.

At the end, instead of claiming the only missing link in her slam resume, Hingis had to settle for being second best at the French for the second time.

As Graf raised her arms in celebration, Hingis gathered her gear, left the court in tears, and had to be dragged back by her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, to the awards presentation. Hingis later said she wouldn't have come back if her mother hadn't made her do so.

The pressure of winning the Roland Garros was too much for Hingis, as she allowed her bad temper to take control instead of focusing  on the task at hand.

There was nothing the three-time Australian Open champion could do to take control of the 14,000 Graf-loving center court fans, who booed her each time she received a racquet abuse warning.

Nevertheless, Hingis started the match the same way she had in her six previous matches by taking the ball early, mixing her shots  and winning most of the rallies.

The match turned around when Hingis was leading 6-4, 2-0.

All of a sudden, the Swiss from Trubach snapped when her down-the-line forehand was ruled out.

She stamped her feet when the chair umpire, Anne Lasserre, agreed with the call and crossed over to Graf's side of the court, a territorial taboo, to reinforce her cause.

Hingis not only lost the point, she was penalized a point for venturing into her opponent's  side of the court. This was the moment when the crowd definitely took the German's side for good.

Later on in the second set, Graf held serve at 4-3 and almost gained a break point at 5-3.

But, Graf followed by making an unforced error, and Hingis gained a momentum that soon saw her serving for the match.

However,  Graf's experience proved to be the great equalizer. 

The German held for 6-5, and with a faint smile on her face, she watched a Hingis forehand veer wide of the sideline. She broke Hingis again to claim the second set, 7-5, and went on to win the match.

On the verge of losing to Steffi Graf, the top-seeded Hingis delivered a shot similar to Michael Chang's against Lendl ten years earlier: an underhand serve on Graf's first match point.

The underhanded move won Hingis a reprieve. But it was only temporary.

The move provoked more boos, as she flubbed the serve and ran to the chair umpire.

With Hingis complaining that the crowd noise had made it impossible for her to deliver her trick serve, Graf knew she had sealed the deal in her last match.

What a way to end a monumental career!