The clay court season culminates at the end of May with one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, the French Open. Each spring, the best players in the sport compete for the second Grand Slam of the year in a setting steeped in history.
Although the event is now synonymous with the arena that hosts it, the Stade de Roland Garros wasn’t actually built until 1928, 37 years after the first men’s singles competition was held in France. The Stade Français club in Paris was the original venue for the French Championships, a tournament only open to members of French clubs. In 1925, the decision was made to welcome international amateur players, and three years later it was staged for the first time at its current home in the 16th arrondissement of the country’s capital city.
Named for the pioneering French aviator and one of the heroes of World War I, the Roland Garros stadium became instantly famous thanks to a bravura performance from the crowd-pleasing “Musketeers.” This quartet, made up of Jacques "Toto" Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste, beat the Americans in a scintillating Davis Cup encounter, and would remain undefeated for the next four years.
After an enforced hiatus during World War II, the French Open prospered in the 1950s and 1960s, and became the first Grand Slam event to join the “Open” era in 1968, thereby allowing professionals to compete for the title. Although Roland Garros is significantly smaller in size than other Grand Slam venues, it still boasts three impressive show courts. Court Philippe Chatrier, named for the former President of the French Tennis Foundation, is the stadium’s main focal point, while Court 1, built in 1980, is more intimate and allows fans to get close to the action. Court Suzanne Lenglen, Roland Garros’s secondary venue, made its debut in 1994, and seats over 10,000 spectators.
What does it take to win?
Named in honour of the France’s Davis Cup heroes, the Coupe des Mousquetaires is one of the most sought-after trophies in the sport for male players. Likewise, the WTA elite strives for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, so-called in memory of the stylish and maverick Frenchwoman who took the tennis world by storm in the 1920s. Winning this silverware requires an incredible amount of grit, determination and stamina. Played on slow, high-bouncing red clay, the French Open rewards players whose games rely on patience, attrition and the setting up of points.
Famously, there have been countless tennis greats over the years who never won in Paris, such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Venus Williams and Martina Hingis. At Roland Garros, fans witness a brand of tennis that is a world away from the quick-fire shotmaking of Wimbledon. While grass rewards those who take their chances and play aggressively, no one has triumphed at the French Open without sweating and grinding every step of the way.
Although Max Decugis technically holds the record for most men’s singles titles, the Frenchman’s eight victories came during the French Championships era, when competition was limited. In the Open Era, Rafael Nadal heads the list of multiple champions, having triumphed every year from 2005 - 2008 and again from 2010 - 2012.
The Spaniard’s dominance is similar to that of Bjorn Borg in the 1970s. The “Ice Man” won his first title in 1974, defended it the following year, and won four more times from 1978 - 1981. Other notable multi-champions are Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, who practically owned the event in the 1980s with three wins apiece. Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten was also a three-time winner at the turn of the century.
On the women’s side, Chris Evert leads the roll of honour with seven titles, won from 1974 - 1986. Steffi Graf is tied with Suzanne Lenglen with six wins, while five-time winner Margaret Court is the only woman to have triumphed both before and during the Open Era. More recently, Roland Garros has been a fertile hunting ground for both Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who each lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen on three occasions, and Justine Henin’s status as the best clay court player of her generation was confirmed when she won her fourth title in Paris in 2007.
Classic French Open Matches
There have been many memorable and dramatic moments at the French Open over the decades, but some matches have passed into tennis folklore.
Lendl defeats McEnroe, 1984 final:
John McEnroe’s and Ivan Lendl’s titanic clash in the 1984 showpiece match is widely recognised as one of the greatest Grand Slam finals of all time. Defying clay court wisdom by serving and volleying his way to a two sets to love lead, McEnroe was just a few games away from his first French Open title. But Lendl, who had lost his previous four Grand Slam finals, refused to be beaten, and wore down the American with smart use of topspin lobs and accurate backhand passes. As McEnroe’s frustration grew, so did Lendl’s confidence, and the Czech edged the classic encounter 7-5 in the fifth set.
=> Watch the video here: McEnroe v Lendl, 1984
Chang defeats Lendl & Edberg, 1989:
Michael Chang was the author of not one but two sensational wins in 1989. In the last 16, he faced top seed and three-time champion Ivan Lendl. Having fought back from two sets to love down, the 17-year-old Chang looked spent in the decider, cramping badly and struggling to keep the ball in play. Yet the young American hung on, standing well inside the court during Lendl’s service games and even serving underarm at one point. The normally impassive Lendl was clearly agitated by these antics, and handed his opponent victory with a double fault. Against Stefan Edberg in the final, Chang came back from the brink once more, defending relentlessly to erase a two sets to one deficit and become the youngest ever winner of a men’s Grand Slam title.
Evert defeats Navratilova, 1985 final:
The Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert rivalry is studded with outstanding matches, but perhaps their most enthralling encounter came in the 1985 final in Paris. Evert had beaten her arch-rival only once in their previous 16 meetings, and a consensus was growing that Navratilova was just too strong for the American. But Evert had been working hard to beef up her game, and the tense title match saw the momentum swing towards both women as they battled for three exquisite hours. Evert, using the net more effectively than ever before in a bid to neutralise Navratilova’s main strength, showed remarkable determination to come through 7-5 in the deciding set in front of an energised and raucous crowd.
=> Watch the video here: Evert v Navratilova, 1985
Graf defeats Hingis, 1999 final:
One of the most notorious women’s matches of all time was the 1999 French Open final between Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis. Graf had suffered many injuries in the three years prior to this title match, and hadn’t won a Grand Slam since 1996. In her absence, Hingis came to dominate the game, and was widely expected to beat the German veteran and win her first title at Roland Garros. Although the quality of the tennis was high, the contest is recalled mostly for the Swiss Miss’ supposed gamesmanship - crossing to Graf’s side of the court to dispute a line call, taking a lengthy bathroom break during the deciding set, and emulating Michael Chang a decade earlier by serving underarm at match point down. Graf, cheered on by a partisan crowd and remaining characteristically cool-headed, held on to win the final major trophy of her career.
=> Watch the video here: Graf v Hingis, 1999
- The most lopsided men’s final was in 1977, when Guillermo Vilas beat Brian Gottfried for the loss of only three games. In 2008, Rafael Nadal almost equalled this feat when he lost a mere four games to Roger Federer in the title match.
- Steffi Graf’s 6-0, 6-0 demolition of Natasha Zvereva in 1988 is the shortest ever Grand Slam final at just 32 minutes.
- In 2004, Gaston Gaudio became the first - and so far only - man in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam final from match points down. He beat Guillermo Coria 8-6 in the deciding set.
- Gustavo Kuerten needed an incredible 11 match points to beat Magnus Norman in the 2000 French Open final.
- The longest-ever men’s match in Paris lasted six hours and 33 minutes. Fabrice Santoro beat fellow Frenchman Arnaud Clement 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 16-14 in the first round in 2004.
- In 1946 and 1947, the French Open was scheduled as the third Grand Slam of the year.
- The French Open is the only Grand Slam event that begins on a Sunday.