Ranking the Greatest Stars in French Open History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2013

Ranking the Greatest Stars in French Open History

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    With Rafael Nadal in position to capture his eighth French Open singles title, it's worthwhile to debate where he ranks among the greatest French Open stars in history.

    The debate starts with defining the term "star."  Winning titles is the most important ingredient in achieving stardom, but it's not the only one. A player's fame, popularity and other intangible qualities also affect French Open star power.

    Our list includes only players who participated in the French Open. In other words, it does not consider players who played only in the French Championships before the start of the Open Era in 1968. 

    That eliminates Suzanne Lenglen, Rene LaCoste and Henri Cochet, three popular French players of the 1920s who would have made the list if all French Championships were considered.

    Instead we list the nine greatest stars of the French Open, with the 10th spot reserved for four players who barely missed the cut, but deserve mention.

10. Four on the Fringe

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    Four players vie for the No. 10 spot on our list, but their French Open stardom is so close that we opted to place them in a group, just outside the top nine.

    Ivan Lendl: A three-time French Open champion, Lendl was also a runner-up twice. Playing in an era that also featured John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors make his accomplishments more impressive, but that crowd of big names also diluted his star power a bit.

    Mats Wilander: Wilander also won three French Open titles and was a finalist two other times. What made him distinctive was that he won his first French Open title in 1982 at age 17 years, 9 months, becoming the youngest male to win a Grand Slam event in the Open Era. (Boris Becker and Michael Chang later beat that record, with Becker winning Wimbledon at age 17 years, 7 months in 1985 and Chang winning the 1989 French Open at age 17 years, 3 months.)

    Gustavo Kuerten: Kuerten won three French Open titles, his first coming in 1997, when he was ranked just 66th in the world, adding to his appeal. Though he never made it past the quarterfinals of any other Grand Slam event, he became a star in France because of his success on clay and his on-court personality.

    "He had special charisma," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said in an ESPN.com article. "He had a style and substance about him that was natural. You wanted to embrace it immediately. He just had a lot of magical moments at the French Open."

    A chronic hip problem that required surgery in 2002 and 2004 limited his success after winning the 2001 French Open title, according to an Associated Press story announcing his retirement.

    Yannick Noah: Noah won just one French Open title and never got past the quarterfinals before or after. But he is the only Frenchman since 1946 to win the French Championships, and his run to the 1983 title made him a beloved star.

    "I've never seen a player so in sync with the crowd," Mats Wilander, Noah's final-round victim, said of that 1983 title match, according to the rolandgarros.com website. "I didn’t realize just what it entailed, playing against Yannick in France."

9. Ken Rosewall

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    Although Ken Rosewall won just one French Open title, he did it at the age of 33 in the very first French Championships in the Open Era.

    His 1968 French Open title came 15 years after he won his first French Championships crown as an amateur in 1953 at the age of 18.

    Rosewall was a runner-up in the 1969 French Open, losing to Rod Laver in the finals when Rosewall was 34 years old.

    He played in just two French Opens and was a finalist in both.

    With his precise groundstrokes, Rosewall probably would have won more French titles had he not spent most of his career as a professional before the start of the Open Era. Nonetheless, the age at which he achieved his French Open title, the gap between his French titles and the significance of the first year of the Open Era make him a star.

8. Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer also has won just one French Open title, and because clay is his weakest surface, he has fared better at the other three majors.

    Federer got to the French Open finals four other times, losing all four to Rafael Nadal as their rivalry grew to worldwide prominence.

    However, it's Federer's overall star quality and popularity that move him comfortably into the top 10 on our list.

    Ranked the No. 1 player in the history of tennis by the Tennis Channel's panel of experts, Federer is a living legend, making him a star wherever he plays, including Roland Garros.

    Federer's popularity in Paris was evident in his five-set victory over Frenchman Gilles Simon this year. The Associated Press reported afterward, "Federer's popularity at Roland Garros is so great that Frenchman [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga will probably not have unanimous support when he takes on the Swiss star."

7. Rod Laver

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    Rod Laver was a finalist in the first two French Championships of the Open Era, and his 1969 French Open victory was part of his Grand Slam year.

    He no doubt would have reached more French finals had he not spent his prime years as a professional before the Open Era.

    The mere fact that he was rated as the second-best player in tennis history by the Tennis Channel's panel of experts makes him a star.

    The fact that his 1969 and 1962 French titles were part of his sweep of all four majors those years, making him the only man to complete two Grand Slams, ensured him a spot on this French Open list of stars.

6. Martina Navratilova

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    Martina Navratilova sits this high because of her star power as much as her French Open accomplishments.

    She won two French Open titles and was a runner-up four other times. Her two French Open titles came amid a run of nine Grand Slam singles titles in a span of 12 Grand Slam events. She dominated her era so much that the Tennis Channel ranked her the fourth-best tennis player (second-best female) of all time.

    Navratilova did not play in the French Open for five years from 1976 through 1981 (ages 19 to 23), robbing her of several other possible titles.

    Her most significant and memorable French Open match may have been one she lost. It occurred in 1983, sandwiched between her titles in 1982 and 1984. Navratilova lost just one match in 1983, and it was to 17-year-old Kathy Horvath in the fourth round of the French Open, considered one of the greatest upsets in tennis history, according to Tennis.com.

    Navratilova also won seven French Open women's doubles titles, and her final semifinal doubles berth in Paris came in 2004, 30 years after her first in 1974. That kind of longevity does not go unnoticed.

5. Justine Henin

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    Justine Henin won four French Open titles, including three in row from 2005 through 2007.

    She would have been favored for a fifth French title, but she announced her retirement just a few weeks before the 2008 French Open. Retiring at age 25 while ranked No. 1 merely added to her star profile.

    After spending 16 months in retirement, Henin made a comeback and played in one more French Open in 2010. 

    Henin had lost in the first round of the Italian Open a week earlier and was only the No. 22 seed for the 2010 French Open. But she beat No. 1-ranked Maria Sharapova in the third round before losing in three sets to Samantha Stosur in the round of 16. Henin had won 40 consecutive sets at the French Open before dropping the second set against Sharapova.

4. Steffi Graf

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    Steffi Graf won six French Open singles titles, one shy of the record for women, and was a finalist three other times.

    She won her first French Open crown in 1987 at age 17 when she beat Martina Navratilova. Her last French title came in 1999, 10 days shy of her 30th birthday, when she beat Martina Hingis.

    In the latter, Graf was clearly the crowd favorite, according the a CNN/SI report, with the crowd chanting her name during much of the match. She announced immediately afterward that it was her last appearance at the French Open as she was going to retire, making her final match at Roland Garros a glorious one.

    The Tennis Channel ranked Graf as the best female player in history.

3. Bjorn Borg

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    Bjorn Borg won two French Open titles as a teenager and finished with six French championships, the last four coming in succession.

    He beat two of the top clay-court players in history in his first three French Open finals, knocking off Manuel Orantes once and Guillermo Vilas twice. Ivan Lendl, who would win three French Open titles, was Borg's final-round victim in his last French Open win in 1981.

    Borg's victory over Orantes came 10 days after his 18th birthday. His win over Lendl in 1981 took place one day after his 25th birthday and was the final match Borg ever played in the French Open. Borg's early retirement adds to his French Open lore, making you wonder how many more he might have won.

    Borg lost only two French Open matches in his career, both to Adriano Panatta. Panatta beat Borg in the round of 16 in 1973, when Borg was 16 years old, and again in the 1976 quarterfinals. Borg did not play in the 1977 French Open, when he was at the peak of his career, because he was under contract to play World Team Tennis, according to ESPN's Peter Bodo.

2. Chris Evert

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    Chris Evert is tied with Rafael Nadal for the most French Open singles titles with seven. Evert was also a finalist two other times.

    She first got to the French Open finals in 1973 at age 18 and won it the next year. Evert won her last French Open championship in 1986 at age 31, a remarkable display of endurance and longevity on the grueling clay surface.

    Evert beat Martina Navratilova in the finals of her final two French Open titles at a time when Navratilova was a dominant player.

    Evert went 197-1 on clay from 1973-81, and she did not play in the French Open during three of her prime years, 1976 through 1978, because she was competing in World Team Tennis,

    In the 13 French Opens she played, Evert got at least to the semifinals in all but the last one in 1988. With her injured foot numbed with an injection, according to the New York Times, Evert lost to Arantxa Sanchez in the third round in 1988.

1. Rafael Nadal

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    Rafael Nadal already holds the record for most French Open men's titles with seven, and he's in position to win an eighth this year heading into his semifinals match against Novak Djokovic.

    Winning this year's title as the No. 3 seed after missing seven months of action in 2012 because of injury would add to his legacy.

    He won his first French title at age 19, and he just turned 27 on June 3 of this year. He is still in his prime and could win a few more French titles before he's through.

    Roger Federer, ranked the best player in history by the Tennis Channel, was the victim in four of Nadal's seven French Open finals.

    Nadal was ranked as the fourth-best male player of all time by the Tennis Channel, and those ratings were released before Nadal won his seventh French title last year.

    Coming into his match against Djokovic, Nadal had a 57-1 career record at the French Open and had not lost at Roland Garros since 2009.

    An eighth French Open singles title would give Nadal the record for the most singles championships in a single Grand Slam event. He currently is tied with Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and William Renshaw, each of whom won seven Wimbledon titles, and Bill Tilden, William Larned and Richard Sears, who won seven U.S. Championships apiece. Only Federer and Sampras accomplished their feats in the Open Era.


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