By Charles Bricker
Of the four Grand Slams, the French, which begins Sunday, is the one that seems to inspire the most unlikely winners.
Like Al Costa in 2002, Iva Majoli in 1997, and Anastasia Myskina and Gaston Gaudio in 2004. One-Slam wonders, all of them.
Gaudio was down two sets to love to Guillermo Coria in the final when Coria began cramping and lost in five. Gaudio never reached another quarterfinal in all his years at Roland Garros.
Costa had always been a good clay courter, and sometimes a very good one. But ’02 was his only big year. When he retired, he had his major title, but was 21-23 in the other three Slams.
Myskina? She had lost four of her first five French Open matches when she soared to the title in her sixth year at Paris, defeating double-fault prone Elena Dementieva in the final — her only hurrah.
As for Majoli, she never reached another semifinal at Paris in her career. That was her one year.
Conversely, these five players might be the greatest NEVER to win a French Open — Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Venus Willliams.
It wasn’t that Sampras couldn’t get the hang of clay. He was 90-54 on the dirt surface, well below his overall winning percentage, but, still, he had three clay court titles when he retired. In 1996, with the fortnight warmer than usual and the clay playing a lot faster, Sampras made it to the semifinals — farthest he got in Paris. And then he was blown away by Yevgeny Kafelnikov. After that season, Pete reached a French Open third round only once.
Connors, with his great service returning, had the game for clay and, in fact, won 12 clay tournaments and was 197-56 overall on the soft surface. He was 40-13 overall at Roland Garros and four times made the semis. But he never clawed his way to the final plateau, though in 1980 he went five sets in the semis with Vitas Gerulaitis.
McEnroe, whose game depended significantly on his serving-and-volleying, had enough finesse to win on clay, but it just wasn’t his surface. He won four clay tournaments and was 118-46 overall on the stuff. He had his chances to win the French. In 1984, he was up two sets to love on Ivan Lendl in the final, but lost, going down 7-5, 7-5 in the final two sets.
Becker would have been great throwing his body around on red clay, and there would have been a lot fewer skin rashes. But you could see from the time he won Wimbledon in 1985 at age 17 that his game just didn’t translate well to clay. He was only 120-61 on clay and never won a clay title. He reached the French semis three times.
Of the five players, Venus perhaps is the most intriguing. The clay took a lot of the oomph out of her big serve, but she has always had enough power to hit ground strokes through any court, hard or soft. What she never had was the patience to endure the longer rallies. She reached the final at Roland Garros just once, losing to sister Serena, who won her only French title in 2002. Some of Venus’ worst losses were at Roland Garros — to No 96 Sesil Karatantchevea in 2005 and in 2006 to 17-year-old Nicole Vaidisova. Vaidisova could have had a great career if she hadn’t retired from the game early, disinterested in tennis. She was no easy mark for Williams. Still, she was just 17 when she won that match, and very inexperienced.
Charles Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org