French Open: 10 Biggest Choke Jobs from the Past 10 Years
The choke job can come in all shapes and sizes. It can come on the world's biggest stage or on a court at your local tennis club. It can sneak up just as a player hits match point, or it can come in the form of unshakable nerves—jitters so bad that the thought of reaching match point is just laughable.
The French Open, where drama is paramount, is home to some of the most notorious chokes in sports, not to mention the history of tennis. Think back to 1983, when Martina Navratilova bageled the unknown Kathleen Horvath in the second set of their fourth-round encounter yet still went on to lose—the lone match she'd concede the entire year.
Or the 1984 men's final, where John McEnroe let slip a 2-0 set lead and fell to Ivan Lendl in a crushing fifth. Or 1999, when Martina Hingis imploded whilst serving for the Career Slam against Steffi Graf, falling in three and having to be dragged back on court for the trophy ceremony by her mother.
In the past decade, there have been more epic meltdowns to add to this list. Check 'em out here as I count down the 10 worst choke jobs from the past 10 years.
10. Kim Clijsters, 2005 Fourth Round
A huge talking point going into the 2005 French Open, as I recall, was which top player would be unlucky enough to draw comeback-kid Kim Clijsters. There's no doubt several pundits and fans (myself included) essentially gave the Belgian a bye into the quarterfinals when it so happened that Lindsay Davenport was the unfortunate beneficiary of Clijsters' low seeding—remember, the Belgian returned to the tour just a few months prior after a long injury layoff that had destroyed her '04 season.
Despite holding the No. 1 ranking at the time, Davenport was, self-admittedly, no clay-courter—especially not on the slow, red terre battue in Paris—and it seemed the American might not even win enough rounds to meet Clijsters during the second week.
But Davenport persevered. She slogged through three straight three-setters—against formidable opponents Katarina Srebotnik, Virginie Razzano and Shuai Pengi, no less—to book a fourth-round encounter with Clijsters. And when the American found herself down 6-1, 3-1 against her streaky opponent, she persevered some more—patiently weathering a barrage of power and letting Clijsters implode, which the Belgian did in marvelous fashion.
In addition to the way she lost the match, there was absolutely no reason why Clijsters should have lost the match—and that's why it cracks this list at No. 10. Besides being such a more fluid and effective clay-courter than L.D., Kim had kicked off her return to the WTA in stunning fashion—capturing back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Miami—and entered the tourney as a huge dark horse.
She'd won her last six encounters with the American. She hadn't dropped a set all tournament. And she should've known, in the back of her mind, that Davenport had choked away a couple of huge matches earlier in '05—against Serena in the Australian Open finals and against Clijsters herself in the Indian Wells championship. Instead, the former finalist ('01) dissolved in a fit of unforced errors and choked away one of the biggest "gimme" matches the French Open would ever present her.
Watch: The entire match is available in 15 segments on YouTube, but the clip I chose is Clijsters serving a set and a break up. Watch as her serve and forehand simply can't seem to find the court anymore.
9. Andre Agassi, 2001 Quarterfinals
Is Andre Agassi a staunch Democrat? I should probably know—or at least remember if he mentioned it in Open: An Autobiography. Considering the drug use and philanthropic efforts, though, I'd say he's leaning left (confirmed by this nifty stat sheet)...though the mullet complicates matters.
On an overcast day at the 2001 French Open, however, you would have thought the Las Vegas resident was best chums with the Bush clan. Shortly after Agassi had wrapped up an easy opening set against 10th seed and home favorite Sebastien Grosjean, Bill Clinton sat down to watch; and it marked the beginning of the end. Grosjean claimed victory 1-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3, acing his opponent to close out the match as Clinton held his head in his hands.
Of course, I'm being facetious...kind of. Agassi's demise is one of the most bizarre unravelings witnessed in recent memory, and contains one of the most notorious urban legends in tennis—that the 42nd president's presence caused Agassi's horrendous demise at the hands of a French pansy!
Again, just joking.
While his WWII-fighting grandfather may have been one, Grosjean was no pushover—especially on this fateful quarterfinal day, which is why I'll probably get some flak for putting this match on my top 10 list. Was it really a matter of Agassi choking, or the Frenchman playing incredibly? Tough to say.
Though it's been a decade since I watched this match, I remember being struck by how little Agassi fought when Grosjean took it to him—even more surprising when taking into account the man captured the title in emotional fashion just a couple years earlier. Up 2-0 in the fourth set with a 71-mph second serve waiting to be smacked on break point, Agassi sailed his return long—a shot which just about summed up the American's miserable afternoon meltdown.
He'd win just one more game, pack his bags and rush off the court without even a nod to the crowd—or to Bill.
8. Justine Henin, 2001 Semifinals
There have been few tennis careers quite like Justine Henin's. Other than the two retirements, bizarre ailments and juicy off-court drama, one of the most defining aspects of the Belgian's saga is how she transformed herself as a competitor. It's tough to believe the steely, muscled maven seen during those unforgettable '06 and '07 seasons was once a fragile, woebegone toothpick with a penchant for gagging on the sport's biggest stages.
A couple of Henin's most notorious folds, surprisingly enough, came on the courts of her beloved Roland Garros. At the '99 French, she was up 5-2 in the third against world No. 2 Lindsay Davenport during their second-round encounter—and didn't win another game in the match. Then, in 2001, she was poised to become the first-ever Belgian to reach a Grand Slam final—building a 6-2 4-2 lead against fellow teen and countrywoman Kim Clijsters before loosening her grip on the match, instead allowing Clijsters' name to enter the history books.
Just like the previous pick on my list, this match rides a thin line between either 1) Henin choking the match away, or 2) Clijsters picking up her game and earning the win. I think in the third set, Clijsters certainly played for the moment—surprising, since she also was mentally weak back in the day (and remained so a lot longer than Henin did). But as the clip above illustrates, just as Henin had built a commanding lead, she let up on the gas. Her shots became more tentative, her movement slowed down a touch and her entire on-court demeanor transformed from loose and relaxed to tight and fidgety.
Henin certainly didn't dwell on the 2-6 7-5 6-3 defeat for long. She'd go on to reach the Wimbledon final just a few weeks later, falling to Venus Williams in another three-set battle.
Watch: The entire clip is full of great clay-court tennis, but pay special attention to the middle minutes—when Henin starts to let her opportunity slip away and Clijsters evens it up.
7. Dinara Safina, 2009 Final
Look at that. Just after I've finished up a slide about what a roller-coaster ride of a career Henin had, we stumble upon Dinara Safina—a player who may go down in tennis history as having one of the most meteoric and short-lived rises to the upper echelons of tennis. It's easy to forget players like Evonne Goolagong, Thomas Muster and Carlos Moya ever hit No. 1 in the world. But 10, 20 or 30 years down the line, will people remember that Dinara Safina had such a dazzlingly short run at the top?
A question like that wouldn't even be on the table if Safina had cashed in one on of her three opportunities to claim Grand Slam glory. Not that the Russian is done yet. She's still young and has a lot of time left in her career if she chooses to re-dedicate herself to the sport. But what with the newly announced indefinite leave, chronic injuries and fragile mental stability, it's hard to imagine Safina will ever return to the heights she reached in 2008 and 2009.
After a blistering pre-Paris tear (in which she famously won Rome and Madrid), the tall Russian entered the '09 edition of Roland Garros in peak form. She tore through to the quarterfinals, losing just four games (!?!) and powered past Victoria Azarenka and Dominika Cibulkova before looming as the heavy favorite in the final against compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova—who'd escaped from a couple extremely physical three-setters just to reach the championship bout.
But when it came time for the match, Safina could do nothing right. From the start, she was muscling the ball over the net instead of using the pristine placement that served her well early on in the tourney. She struggled on serve, clocking a double fault to hand Kuznetsova the match. She grew more and more visibly frustrated with Kuznetsova's sublime defense. And in the end, Safina couldn't get past the fact that it was "just another tennis match"—a phrase that her opponent kept helpfully repeating to herself throughout the final.
Cough it up to nerves, but maybe it was karma that caused the Russian to choke away her best shot at a major—as you'll see later on in this countdown, she's gotten in the heads of a couple very formidable opponents during French Opens of years past.
Watch: As Safina implodes during the final stages of the second set.
6. Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2005 Fourth Round
Yep—before Kuznetsova could take home the coveted Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, she had to battle some serious French Open demons. In 2004, she had a match point on countrywoman—and eventual surprise champ—Anastasia Myskina before falling 8-6 in the third. In 2006, she scraped her way to the finals and played a match as lackluster as it was unmemorable against Justine Henin.
In between those losses came another devastating defeat at the hands of the Belgian—one which was incredibly tough for Kuznetsova to swallow, as she was having trouble replicating the play that led her to the '04 U.S. Open title. Playing beautiful clay-court tennis—the perfect mix of aggression and defensive play—Kuznetsova essentially was playing Justine Henin's typical brand of clay-court tennis better than Justine Henin on a sunny day in '05.
She'd lost a tight first set in a tiebreak, but Kuznetsova didn't let that get her down. After evening the affair at one set apiece, she went up 5-3 in the third and held a couple match points. Then it got comical. Gripped by such horrible nerves that she could barely move, the Russian couldn't hit a ball beyond the service line during either of her chances to seal the deal. She played short, slow and defensive shots—and, like any seven-time major champion, Justine Henin took merciless advantage.
Considering how well Kuznetsova played prior to Roland Garros and in the match against the Belgian, it goes down as one of the worst chokes in the Russian's career...which is saying something. The match ended after nearly three-and-a-half-hours, the war of attrition going Henin's way, 6-7(6) 6-4 7-5.
Never one to miss out on an opportunity, the Liege native sensed that she needed to step up her game and big time. Henin would breeze to the title without losing another set. Kuznetsova, meanwhile, had to wait four long years to finally get some redemption in Paris.
5. Amelie Mauresmo, 2001 First Round
Amelie Mauresmo put together a first half of 2001 that was nothing short of perfect. After a difficult season the year before, in which she struggled with a back injury and failed to build upon her exhilarating run to the '99 Aussie Open final, the Frenchwoman decided to tinker with her schedule a bit. She rebounded from a three-set loss to Venus Williams in Melbourne and won back-to-back indoor titles in her native France.
Then, instead of undergo the wear and tear of the Indian Wells and Miami double, Mauresmo rested up her body for the clay-court swing. Her unusual methodology paid off. Mauresmo took home titles in Amelia Island and Berlin while finishing runner-up in Rome—vanquishing players Capriati, Hingis, Dementieva, Sanchez-Vicario and Coetzer during the scintillating stretch.
She went into the French Open that year as the No. 5 seed, was picked by many to win, was given a comfortable draw and was at a physical and mental high point. But for a creature like Mauresmo, even the utmost confidence wouldn't cut it in front of the Parisian crowd. In one of the most shocking—and, at the same time, oh-so-predictable—losses in recent Roland Garros memory, the Frenchwoman fell 7-5, 7-5 to unheralded German journeywoman Jana Kandarr in the very first round.
Afterwards, Mauresmo exposed her raw disappointment to the press: "I never really got into the match, I never felt that I could relax," she said. "It's not an easy thing to put into words, but there's a feeling of powerlessness—in fact you feel as though you're being overwhelmed."
While salvation would never come for Mauresmo on the red clay courts of her home Slam, fans around the world rejoiced when she got a double-taste of Grand Slam glory five years after this harrowing defeat—defeating, perhaps fittingly, Justine Henin in both finals.
4. Maria Sharapova, 2006 Fourth Round
Sometimes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. In the case of Maria Sharapova, this phrase is often true. Remember the first round of the '07 Aussie against Camille Pin? The lanky Russian barely escaped 9-7 in the third—then ended up blasting her way to the final.
In the first round of the '05 French, Sharapova scraped past countrywoman Evgenia Linetskaya before putting together a nice little quarterfinal showing. And a year later at Roland Garros, Sharapova came up against Mashona Washington in her opener—saving two match points in the third set with screaming forehand winners, prevailing 6-2, 5-7, 7-5.
After that, she seemed poised to make a great run. Easing into the fourth round, she was next up against Dinara Safina—who, at that point, was most famous for being the little sister of Marat Safin. Shaking off an error-filled first set, Sharapova used her trademark pinpoint groundstrokes to pound her opponent into submission. Safina was being dragged side to side, up and back and, to put it bluntly, there wasn't a lot she could do about it.
Soon enough, Marat's lil' sis found herself down 5-1 in the third. And that's when the wheels fell off Sharapova's game. Her buggy-whip forehand started flying. Her shoulders slumped as winners whizzed by. Her resolve faded as Safina started moving like a gazelle and anticipating better than a big-time boxer.
In one of the most improbable comebacks in French Open history, Safina won 18 of the last 21 points and capped an unbelievable six-game run, punching the card on the (usually) mentally tough Sharapova's '06 Roland Garros campaign.
Watch: For some reason, the second part of this video wouldn't embed. So use the first half of the match posted above to lead you to part two—and savor Sharapova's utter meltdown.
3. Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2002 Final
Out of all the massive meltdowns on my list, this choke is so bad that words can't really do it justice. It was just...abysmal. Disastrous. Appalling. Now go get another damn thesaurus and look up some of your own adjectives to describe this horror show of a Grand Slam final.
Spanish golden boy Juan Carlos Ferrero—who lived and breathed for the dirt—had been patient in getting to his first major final. After falling in the semis the three previous years, he eased past world No. 2 Marat Safin in that stage—needing just three easy sets to do so. All that lay between him and his first chunk of Slam glory was a grizzled tour veteran and surprise finalist: fellow Spaniard Albert Costa.
Yep, good old Al Costa. Here's a guy who spent years languishing in the 10s and 20s in the world rankings. He was lucky to win a title or two per year. He compiled a 30-11 record at Roland Garros by the time his career was done—and a 21-25 record at all the other majors combined. Basically, he's the type of guy you would never peg to reach a Grand Slam final. But hey, he got a nice draw and fought well. Good for him.
But winning the title? A miracle would have to happen. This was, after all, Juan Carlos' for the taking. The kid was young, fresh, fit, confident and well prepared. And he was going up against Albert Costa. Just give him the trophy already!
Alas, the predictions were wrong. Nerves hit Ferrero hard. In the first two sets of what was nearly guaranteed to be his first Slam win, Ferrero won just a lone game—finding himself in a dismal hole after just 46 minutes. He picked it up in the third, but it was too little, too late. By that point, Costa was full of confidence and ready to pounce on his once-in-a-lifetime chance for glory.
Perhaps the elder Spaniard was inspired by Thomas Johansson's unlikely victory in Melbourne—but he must have known he'd gotten a little lucky when Ferrero didn't show up to play.
Watch: Nothing! You know when a Grand Slam final in recent history isn't on YouTube, it's gotta be bad.
2. Elena Dementieva, 2008 Quarterfinals
Elena Dementieva will go down in the history books as one of the best players to never take home a major title. Repeated so many times by fans and commentators both before and after her retirement, it's a statement that won't be forgotten anytime soon.
But what is often forgotten when remembering the Russian's missed opportunities is this dogfight with Dinara Safina. When people think of Dementieva's chances to take home a Slam, they think of her finals against Myskina and Kuznetsova. They think of her losses in semis—the crushing one to Serena at Wimbledon in '09, the controversial one to Pierce at the U.S. Open in '05. They think back to last year's French, where she had to retire with an injury after the first set of her semi versus Francesca Schiavone. But they often forget about this match, when, up 6-4 5-2, Dementieva was on the cusp of victory.
And then, like so many other chokers on this list, she fell apart. She blew it. Another chance to move closer and closer to a coveted major gone.
At 5-3, Dementieva held a match point. At 5-5 in the tiebreak, she had chances to take a lead. At 6-5 in the tiebreak, she watched Safina club a backhand, down-the-line winner and clench her fists, as if already savoring the third-set beatdown that waited on the horizon. There would be no fight, no resistance from Elena D in that miserable deciding set—just pure capitulation.
For me, the bagel signifies that even Dementieva realized what a huge opportunity she wasted. Right before this tournament, Roland Garros queen Justine Henin retired—throwing the women's field into utter chaos. Both Venus and Serena went down in straight sets in the third round. Clijsters was still on sabbatical, and Wozniacki hadn't begun to emerge as a contender.
This was one of the most wide-open Slams in history, and it was so Dementieva's for the taking.
That's why this ranks high on the list. In my eyes, the Russian choked away her best bet at a major. Ana Ivanovic's emotional breakthrough will be seen as the women's highlight of the '08 French for years to come, but the fact she won the trophy without beating another Slam winner—the first time that'd happened since '96—signals what a big opportunity Dementieva blew.
Hey, at least she'll be remembered for winning Olympic gold in '08—beating none other than Safina in a dramatic three-setter to do it.
1. Guillermo Coria, 2004 Final
It's one of those rare matches that just had it all, the good, the bad and the incredibly ugly: drama, pressure, national pride, a big favorite and a big underdog, beautiful clay-court tennis, horrendous clay-court tennis, an injury, yips, match points lost, an inspirational "wave" and, of course, one of the biggest chokes in the sport's history.
It's a match so bizarre that you almost don't believe it happened, no matter how many times you view the tragic ending that unfolded for Guillermo Coria. To think that Gaston Gaudio, much like Albert Costa, would ever take home a Grand Slam trophy was flat-out ludicrous. Unlike Costa, however, who got out to an amazing start in his bout with Ferrero, Gaudio was pummeled under the dirtballer juggernaut Coria in the early stages of their championship encounter. Yet he emerged the victor in one of my favorite tennis scorelines of all time: 0-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 8-6.
Coria, nicknamed "El Mago" (The Magician), predated Rafael Nadal on clay. While Nadal is built on brawn and strength, the Argentine's game was fluid and loose and, well, magical. Both styles distinct, both beautiful to watch.
In '03, Coria won three clay titles in three weeks post-Wimbledon. In '04, he won the Monte Carlo masters, finished runner-up to Roger Federer in Hamburg and reached No. 3 in the world. He was primed as could be going into the French, where last year he'd suffered a shock defeat to obscure Dutchman Martin Verkerk in the semis. This year, though, would be his year—especially with Roger Federer, who fell in the third round, out of the picture.
And for two sets, Coria was well on his way to victory. Embarrassingly so. It took "the wave" done around the stadium by the French fans to spark Gaudio into action—he'd take a tight third set and watch in the fourth as Coria suffered from leg cramps, essentially giving it up. That just opened the floodgates for more drama: the deciding fifth.
Still paralyzed by cramps, Coria fought past the pain and got into position to serve for the match at 6-5. He held two championship points, his coach and girlfriend cheering him on, the stadium going wild—and Coria hit unforced errors on both of them. Gaudio would break, hold and break again, capping off a stunning victory and cementing Guillermo Coria's legacy at the top of this heralded, legendary countdown.
Like Dementieva, Coria will also go down as one of the best players to never win a Slam. Even more than her, he had one in his pocket—the Russian can never say she held match points in the title match.
But unlike Dementieva, Coria let this failed opportunity ruin his career. He followed up '04 with a surprisingly solid '05 season, but the damage was all but done. With this choke job in the finals, he lost his spark. Struggling with injuries, low confidence and extreme yips on his serve, the Argentine called it quits a couple years ago after toiling on the challenger circuit. It was a most unfortunate ending to a career that, if he hadn't choked at the worst of times, could have been a thing of beauty.