The 10 Most Memorable Matches in French Open History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMay 28, 2014

The 10 Most Memorable Matches in French Open History

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    MICHEL EULER/Associated Press

    Garbine Muguruza's stunning, second-round upset of No. 1 Serena Williams this year may someday rank among the most memorable matches in French Open history. But it must stand the test of time before it can be placed alongside other matches etched in our memory. 

    Roland Garros has been the site of a number of unforgettable contests since 1968, when the French Championships became the first Grand Slam tournament to be an Open event.

    Amazing comebacks, riveting tennis, emotional displays and controversial moments during periods of high drama have combined to create the most unforgettable French Open matches.

    We begin with five noteworthy matches that did not quite make our list. Then we begin a countdown of the 10 most memorable French Open matches.

Honorable Mention

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    Venus Williams hugs sister Serena after 2002 French Open finals
    Venus Williams hugs sister Serena after 2002 French Open finalsCHRISTOPHE ENA/Associated Press

    Jennifer Capriati defeats Kim Clijsters 1-6, 6-4, 12-10, 2001 finals — The 25-year-old Capriati, a former teenage prodigy, resurrected a career derailed by drugs and personal problems by rallying from a slow start to win the marathon.

    Mary Joe Fernandez defeats Gabriela Sabatini 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 10-8, 1993 quarterfinals — Fernandez trailed 6-1, 5-1 and fought off five match points against her to pull off the upset.

    Gaston Gaudio defeats Guillermo Coria, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6, 2004 finals — The unseeded Gaudio rallied from two sets down and fought off two match points in the fifth set against Coria, who suffered severe cramps midway through the match.

    Bjorn Borg defeats Manuel Orantes 2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1, 1974 finals — Not only was this the first Grand Slam title for Borg, who was 10 days past his 18th birthday, but he did it with a remarkable comeback.

    Serena Williams defeats Venus Williams 7-5, 6-3, 2002 finals — The Williams sisters faced each other for the eighth time as pros, and this was the first of four consecutive Grand Slam finals in which they would meet.

10. Robin Soderling Defeats Rafael Nadal, 2009 Fourth Round

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    Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

    Typically, recollections of a particular match fade over time. Robin Soderling's 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) victory over Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open is different. The memory of that match seems to grow stronger as its historical significance increases.

    Nadal played his first French Open match at the age of 18 in 2005. Since then, he has lost just one match at Roland Garros heading into this year's second-round match against Dominic Thiem. Nadal is 60-1 in the French Open, winning the title eight of the nine times he played the event.

    The lone exception was 2009, when Soderling, who was seeded No. 23, played the match of his life to pull off one of the biggest upsets in history. 

    Nadal, the No. 1 seed in 2009, had won all three of his previous meetings with Soderling, including a 6-1, 6-0 rout on clay in Rome a month earlier. Nadal also was 31-0 in the French Open at the time, a tournament record.

    But on May 31, 2009, Soderling, an aggressive player who goes for winners on nearly every shot, fired 61 winners against Nadal, who had just 33 winners himself. Soderling also won 27 of the 35 points in which he ventured to the net.

    Soderling got as far as the finals before losing to Roger Federer that year.

    Subsequently, Nadal's knee injury, which forced him to miss Wimbledon that year, and the distraction caused by the separation of his parents were viewed as reasons for Nadal's stunning loss, according to an report. Nonetheless, Soderling's upset of a player who otherwise has been unbeatable at the French Open makes it an unforgettable event.

9. Andre Agassi Defeats Andrei Medvedev, 1999 Finals

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    LAURENT REBOURS/Associated Press

    Andre Agassi's 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Andrei Medvedev in the 1999 French Open finals represented a comeback within a comeback.

    Agassi had gone from a player who had been ranked No. 1 in 1996 to one ranked No. 141 in October 1997. He had re-emerged by 1999,but was seeded only No. 13 at the French Open and had not won a Grand Slam event in four years. A week before the French Open, Agassi, 29, had contemplated skipping the event because of a sore shoulder.

    Medvedev, who was ranked No. 100, seemed headed to his first major title when he blew by Agassi in 19 minutes in the first set and was equally dominant while winning the second.

    The turning point came in the ninth game of the third set. At 4-4, 30-15, Agassi double faulted on consecutive points to give Medvedev a break-point opportunity. But Agassi saved it with a drop volley, held serve, then broke Medvedev's serve in the 10th game to win the third set.

    After winning the fifth set to complete the comeback, Agassi covered his face and began crying.

    "This is certainly the greatest feeling I've ever had on a tennis court," Agassi said, according to the New York Times.

8. Kathy Horvath Defeats Martina Navratilova, 1983 Fourth Round

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    STOLTMAN/Associated Press

    Through much of the 1980s, Martina Navratilova was as unbeatable as anyone has ever been in the open era.

    During a two-year stretch from December 1982 to December 1984 she had a match record of 167-2, and her 86-1 record in 1983 is the best single-season mark in open history. Her lone loss that year was not to Chris Evert or Tracy Austin or Andrea Jaeger or Hana Mandlikova or Pam Shriver, all of whom were stars at the time, but to a 17-year-old named Kathy Horvath.

    Horvath was unseeded and ranked No. 45 when she pulled off one of the biggest upsets in a Grand Slam tournament, beating Navratilova 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 in the fourth round of the 1983 French Open.

    Navratilova was 3-0 against Horvath without losing a set when they met at the 1983 French Open. But Horvath, who had a match point against Evert in a loss two weeks earlier on clay, was confident.

    "It was one of those perfect days you can count on one hand," Horvath said years later in an story. "I woke up feeling great and when I started warming up I felt perfect, like I could put the ball on a dime."

    Normally a baseliner, Horvath played an aggressive match against Navratilova, coming to net more frequently than usual.

    Horvath won the first set, but when Navratilova blew through the second without the loss of a game, it seemed Horvath's upset bit had been thwarted.

    However, Horvath hung with Navratilova in the third set, and Navratilova's coach, Renee Richards, and trainer, Nancy Lieberman, could be heard arguing in the players' box about strategy, according to the report.  

    Horvath finished off the stunning victory, but then lost in the next round to unseeded Mima Jausovec 6-1, 6-1. 

    Navratilova won her next 50 matches and went 128-1 over the next 19 months. Navratilova and Horvath met seven more times after Horvath's historic victory, and Horvath never won another set. At the age of 24, Horvath retired from professional tennis to go to college.

7. Rafael Nadal Defeats Novak Djokovic, 2013 Semifinals

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    Michel Spingler/Associated Press

    Rafael Nadal's 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2013 French Open semifinal is memorable simply for its high level of play and riveting nature.

    John McEnroe said it might have been the best match ever played on a clay court, and tennis historian Steve Flink told World Tennis, “It was definitely among the finest semifinals ever played."

    Nadal had won seven French Open titles by then, but Djokovic was the No. 1 player in the world, and the memory of Djokovic's epic five-set victory over Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open finals was lingering in observers' minds.

    The resiliency of both players highlighted their 2013 encounter at Roland Garros.

    Nadal served for the match at 6-5 of the fourth set and led 30-15 in that 12th game before Djokovic fought back to force a tiebreaker, which he won.

    It was Nadal's turn to rally in the final set, coming back from a 4-2 deficit and eventually taking the deciding set when he broke Djokovic's serve at love in the 16th game.


6. Monica Seles Defeats Steffi Graf, 1992 Finals

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    Chris Cole/Getty Images

    Monica Seles' 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory over Steffi Graf in the 1985 French Open finals was the epitome of riveting tennis in a big match involving two all-time greats.

    The 18-year-old Seles was ranked No. 1 in the world and had already won five of the nine Grand Slam titles she would eventually capture. Graf was 22 and ranked No. 2, having won 10 of the 22 major titles she would ultimately claim, causing her to be rated the top women's player in history by the Tennis Channel.

    In the 1992 French Open, Graf fought off five match points against her in a taut, 90-minute third set. She saved four of those match points while serving at 3-5 and rallied to take leads of 6-5 and 7-6. But Seles ultimately prevailed.

    "I think it was the most emotional match I've played ever, not just in a Grand Slam, but in any tournament," Seles said, according to Time magazine.

    The match became more memorable because it was Seles' last match at the French Open until 1996. She was stabbed by a Graf fan during a match on April 30, 1993, three weeks before the start of the 1993 French Open. She missed the next three French Opens and was never quite the dominant player she had been in 1992.

5. Yannick Noah Defeats Mats Wilander, 1983 Finals

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    For French tennis fans, Yannick Noah's straight-sets victory over defending champion Mats Wilander in the 1983 French Open final no doubt would rank No. 1 among memorable matches at Roland Garros.

    For tennis historians, it would rank high on the list because it was the last Grand Slam title won with a wooden racket, according to the French Open site.

    The latter meant little to the French, who had been starving for a champion from their country. Not only was Noah the first Frenchman to win the French title in 37 years, but no French male has won it since.

    These days, Noah is known mostly for being the father of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah. But in the 1983 French Open finals, the charismatic Noah captured the French fans like no one has before or since. The crowd carried Noah that day, and he carried the crowd with his flamboyant shot-making.

    "After 10 minutes," said Wilander, according to an report, "I saw there was no way I was going to win."

    Footage of the aftermath of Noah's victory indicates what Noah's victory meant to the French people. After completing his 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 victory over Wilander, Noah rushed into the arms of his father, Zacharie, who had jumped onto the court. 

    "He is an artist of life," Wilander would say later of Noah, according to Time. "Wherever he goes, there is sunshine. We love him for that."

4. Chris Evert Defeats Martina Navratilova, 1985 Finals

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    The 1985 French Open finals was the 65th and best of the 80 matches Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova would play against each other.

    Navratilova held a 33-31 lead against Evert at the time and had won 15 of their previous 16 meetings, including a 6-3, 6-1 victory in the 1984 French Open finals. But Evert won this one 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking at age 30.

    This matchup of the two stars with the contrasting styles produced great entertainment. 

    As described in an excerpt from Johnette Howard's book The Rivals: Chris Evert Vs. Martina Navratilova: Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship, "The match they played was dazzling, not for its perfection necessarily but more for the stomach-gnawing tension and the stirring determination they displayed."

    Navratilova rallied from down 2-4, 0-40 in the second set to force a third.

    In the deciding set, Evert let a 5-3 lead slip away. Navratilova tied it 5-5 and, with momentum on her side, had an 0-40 lead on Evert's serve in the 11th game. Evert came back to hold serve, then broke Navratilova's serve in the 12th game to close it out.

3. Ivan Lendl Defeats John McEnroe, 1984 Finals

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    John McEnroe's loss to Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open finals no doubt haunts him. It also may have prevented McEnroe from claiming the most dominant season in the open era.

    McEnroe had finally learned how to win on clay in 1984 and was playing the best tennis of his career.

    He finished the year with an 84-3 match record, and he was riding a 42-match winning streak when he faced Lendl in the 1984 French Open. McEnroe had won all four previous 1984 meetings against Lendl, the last two being straight-set victories on clay.  Plus, Lendl had never won a Grand Slam title.

    McEnroe was well on his way to his first French Open title after cruising through the first two sets. Lendl seemed to have no answer for McEnroe's serve-and volley game, even on the slow surface.

    Then, at 1-1 in the third set, McEnroe's famed emotions got the better of him.  Angered by a television cameraman's headset that was making noise, McEnroe grabbed the instrument and yelled "Shut Up" into the attached microphone before tossing the headset aside.

    Not only did the outburst seem to break McEnroe's momentum, it put the crowd squarely on Lendl's side. Spectators started hooting McEnroe, according to a story, and Lendl seemed energized by the incident. McEnroe blew a triple break point two games later, and the two played on even terms thereafter.

    Lendl eventually won 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5 in a match that took four hours and eight minutes. Lendl won two more French Open titles, but this was McEnroe's first and only appearance in a French Open final. The match is memorable as much for McEnroe's outburst and subsequent collapse as for Lendl's comeback.

2. Michael Chang Defeats Ivan Lendl, 1989 Fourth Round

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    Simon Bruty/Getty Images

    Michael Chang's fourth-round upset of Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open had a little bit of everything: a remarkable comeback, a stunning upset achieved despite Chang's severe cramps, an underhand serve on a crucial point, complaints about the officiating by Lendl and moonballs.

    Chang's 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over the world's top-ranked player was memorable on its own. But the match became more unforgettable when the 17-year-old Chang went on to win the tournament, becoming the youngest male to win a Grand Slam event in the open era.

    Lendl had won his first three matches in the tournament in straight sets, and he seemed to be on his way to a similar result when he won the first two sets against the No. 15-seeded Chang. But after Chang won the third set, Lendl began complaining about the conditions and perceived bad calls. It cost him a penalty point and a game in the fourth set.

    By that time, Chang was suffering from severe leg cramps, and by late in the fourth set, he could barely move. That's when Chang began hitting the moonballs to save his legs. The high-arcing moonballs continued in the final set, but the cramps became so bad, Chang considered forfeiting.

    "I was really close to quitting," Chang later said, according to a story in The Guardian.  "I started to say to myself: 'Who am I kidding here? I'm 17 years old and I'm playing against the No. 1 player in the world. It wouldn't be so bad to just call it a day.'"

    Chang started walking toward the chair umpire to retire but at the last moment decided to continue.

    Despite his physical limitations, Chang took a 4-3 lead in the fifth set but trailed 15-30 on his own serve in the eighth game. That is when Chang delivered an underhand serve. Chang won that point and the game, then broke Lendl's serve on the ninth game when Lendl double faulted on match point.

1. Steffi Graf Defeats Martina Hingis, 1999 Finals

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    MICHEL EULER/Associated Press

    One day before her future husband, Andre Agassi, pulled off a remarkable comeback that ranks as the No. 9 most memorable French Open match, Steffi Graf won a match that was even more eventful.

    Graf's 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory over Martina Hingis in the 1999 women's final had all the elements of an unforgettable match: controversy, crowd involvement, star quality, tension, displays of emotion, a comeback and sentimental value.

    ''This is by far the biggest, the most unexpected win I've ever had," Graf said, according to the New York Times. "It was one of the craziest matches ever; it had everything.''

    It was also the final French Open match for the Graf, who was one week shy of her 30th birthday. She said after the match that this was her final French Open, and she announced her retirement from competitive tennis two months later.

    The top-seeded Hingis was in control of the match, winning the first set and leading 2-0 in the second, when things turned. After disputing an out call of a forehand she hit, Hingis crossed over to Graf's side of the court to further argue the call. That breach not only cost Hingis a penalty point, but brought on the wrath of the crowd. Hingis was booed and hooted thereafter, and she was clearly bothered.

    Nonetheless, Hingis was serving for the match at 5-4 before Graf won three straight games to level things.

    Graf, the No. 6 seed, dominated the third set, but at match point in the eighth game, Hingis delivered an underhand serve that helped her win the point and stay alive. Hingis attempted another underhand serve on Graf's second match point, but when she missed that serve, the crowd booed and hissed. Again Hingis complained to the chair umpire.

    Graf won the match on her second match point, and a shaken Hingis quickly left the court with no plans to return. She had to be talked back onto the court by her mother to be part of the post-match award ceremony.