Roland Garros Flashback: Kuerten Saves Match Point & Defends Title
Russell speaks to ATPTour.com about their epic 2001 battle
All it takes is one point to alter the course of a tournament.
American qualifier Michael Russell was one point from a feat that hours earlier had seemed inconceivable: scoring a straight-sets win against top seed and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in their fourth-round clash at 2001 Roland Garros. But after the Brazilian erased the match point by prevailing in a lengthy rally at 3-5, he clawed back to score a dramatic 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-1 victory.
After the match, Kuerten carved a large heart in the clay with his racquet and knelt down in the middle of it. It would become his trademark for the rest of the tournament as he went on to defend his title and lift his third crown in Paris.
“It was very special, maybe one of the greatest feelings in all my life on the tennis court,” Kuerten said. “I like these challenges, to fight and to give it my all. But a payback like this is more than you can ask for.”
While some players may have been devastated at coming so close to a career-changing win, the 23-year-old Russell was able to quickly shake it off. His inspired run in Paris pushed him inside the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time.
“I was down match point in the first round of qualifying and then had a match point on the World No. 1, so there was so much craziness within a three-week period,” Russell recalled to ATPTour.com. “I was able to get through the loss very quickly, but a lot of that had to do with being so young and just breaking through. There were so many career-highs from it that it didn’t give me a chance to be negative. I felt like I had my whole career in front of me and this was a launching pad.”
Although Russell’s memorable run would remain his best Grand Slam result, he’d go on to enjoy a lengthy ATP Tour career and peak at No. 60 in the rankings. He even developed a rapport with Kuerten and the pair casually brought up their epic battle over the course of their careers.
”We joked about it after, but obviously it’s easier to joke about when you’re the guy winning,” Russell said, laughing. ”But even walking around the grounds in Paris today, fans will sometimes come up to me and say they remember watching that match and how special it was. It’s really nice to get still that support. That match helped me for the rest of my career because it made me believe that I could win every match when I stepped on court.”
Stich On Muster Roland Garros Stunner: ‘He Had A Lot To Lose’
Relive the German’s upset at 1996 Roland Garros
Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September.
Two weeks before Roland Garros in 1996, Michael Stich was unsure if he was going to play the clay-court Grand Slam.
Stich had lost a three-setter in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia against current ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi. Before that, he hadn’t played for nearly three months due to a left ankle surgery that March.
“Why should I come to Paris and look like an idiot on clay?” Stich wondered, according to the New York Times.
Little did the 27-year-old know that he’d not only play Roland Garros, but he would spring the upset of the tournament and achieve his career-best result on the terre battue.
After winning his first three matches with the loss of only one set, 15th-seeded Stich faced a daunting fourth-round challenge against defending champion Thomas Muster. The second seed was the tournament favourite after triumphing in Monte Carlo and Rome.
Despite trailing by two sets to one, it appeared the Austrian was poised to wrestle back control of the match from Stich. Muster served to force a decider at 5-3, and converting would have put him in good shape, as he was arguably the fittest player on the ATP Tour.
“We all knew Thomas Muster was a strong guy. He was an animal,” former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov told ATPTour.com. “He could run fast and for a long time.”
Instead, Stich kept Muster pinned well behind the baseline to earn three consecutive break chances. Although he couldn’t convert the first two, he hit a ball with heavy topspin to Muster’s forehand, and the Austrian couldn’t reach due to the high bounce.
The players weren’t going to a fifth set, but a tie-break. Stich hit a net-cord winner to earn the first mini-break, and he never looked back from there. When he clinched the 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6(1) stunner with a forehand volley winner, Stich threw his arms up in celebration.
“There was a lot of pressure on him to defend his title,” Stich said, according to the Washington Post. “I had nothing to lose. He had a lot to lose.”
Muster won 18 tour-level clay-court titles in 1995 and 1996, yet he lost in four sets against a player who wasn’t sure he was going to play Roland Garros at all.
“It’s a disappointment now, but when I wake up tomorrow morning, I will hopefully have the same hair,” Muster said. “Winning last year hasn’t changed my life, and this is not going to change my life, either.”
The upset surprised the rest of the field, too. Kafelnikov said that there was a crowd of players watching the match in the locker room.
“I was very surprised, but all credit to Michael. He played a very fantastic match,” Kafelnikov said. “That was the surprise of the tournament, that the defending champion went out in the fourth round. But Michael played a very great tactical match and used his strengths to his advantage very classically. It did surprise many players.
“I knew Thomas was the best clay-court player at the time with his record and his game. That year was very, very hot. The courts got a bit quicker. The balls were travelling through the air a bit faster.”
Stich maintained his momentum, beating home favourite Cedric Pioline and Swiss Marc Rosset to reach his first and only Roland Garros final. The German fell short against Kafelnikov, who had led their ATP Head2Head series 6-3.
Nevertheless, the fortnight was a 180-degree turnaround for Stich. Not only did he show up in Paris, but he looked better than ever on the red clay.
“I might have lost a match,” Stich said after the final. “But I’ve recaptured my love for the sport.”
Flashback: Federer Survives Haas To Keep Career Grand Slam Bid Alive
Swiss recovered from two sets and break point down in fourth round
For four consecutive years from 2005 to 2008, Roger Federer’s bid to become the sixth man to complete the Career Grand Slam was ended by Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
So, when the four-time defending champion fell to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009, Federer knew he had a great chance to finally break through in the French capital. One day after Nadal’s loss, Federer met former World No. 2 Tommy Haas for a place in the quarter-finals.
The Mutua Madrid Open champion entered the contest on an eight-match winning streak and had won seven straight ATP Head2Head clashes against Haas, but it was the German who opened the match in inspired form to increase Federer’s nerves on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
“He wasn’t taking full command of his opportunities,” said Haas. “He was making a few more unforced errors than usual, and his forehand wasn’t firing on all cylinders.”
Despite a strong serving performance from Federer in the first set, Haas dictated rallies from the baseline with his forehand and served with power and precision in the tie-break to earn a one-set lead. He then doubled his advantage by taking the second set, rallying with Federer from the back of the court and extracting crucial errors in the 12th game to move one set from victory.
After three consecutive finals between Nadal and Federer, the Parisian crowd were beginning to imagine the prospect of losing both men from the draw in a 24-hour period. Those thoughts were magnified when the match reached its most crucial point in the third set.
As Haas continued to pile the pressure on Federer’s shoulders, the German earned break point at 3-4, 30/40 on the 13-time Grand Slam champion’s serve. If Haas could convert his opportunity, he would serve for the match.
Federer, who had struggled to find his best level on his forehand, held his nerve to not only survive, but turn the match on its head. Haas returned Federer’s second serve with interest, attacking his opponent’s backhand with a cross-court reply. But Federer had other ideas, shuffling his feet to strike a pinpoint inside-out forehand winner just inside the tramline.
“When I hit that forehand to save a break point at 3-4 in the third, I had the feeling it could be a turning point in the match,” said Federer.
The 58-time tour-level titlist held serve and claimed back-to-back games to force the match to a fourth set. From there, Federer won 12 of 14 games to cruise to the finish line. It proved to be a crucial victory for Federer, who overcame Gael Monfils, Juan Martin del Potro and Soderling to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the first time.
With his Roland Garros triumph, Federer joined Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi as the sixth man to complete the Career Grand Slam. The win also drew the Swiss level with Pete Sampras’ record haul of 14 Grand Slam titles.
Italian explains injury struggles in Instagram post
Fabio Fognini has been using his time at home in Italy to bond with his three-year-old son, Federico, and play backyard tennis with his wife, former US Open champion Flavia Pennetta. But when he recently transitioned to a real court for training sessions, the ankle issues that plagued him for nearly four years still remained.
The 33-year-old decided to tackle the problem on Saturday by undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both ankles. Fognini explained in an Instagram post on Saturday that he believed this is the best possible time for him to have the procedures.
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”I’ve been having a problem with my left ankle for three-and-a-half years now. It’s an issue I’ve learned to cope with. Then my right ankle started playing up in the past two years as well,” Fognini wrote. “I had hoped the various issues would go away during my two-month break from the game because of the lockdown, but when I resumed training, they were still there.
“After medical examination and a long discussion with my team, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery on both ankles. I believe it’s the right thing to do while the Tour is on this enforced break. I will undergo surgery in Italy today. I can’t wait to be back playing again!”
Fognini, No. 11 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, started this season by representing Italy in the inaugural ATP Cup and reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open. He picked up his first ATP Masters 1000 title last April in Monte-Carlo and, two months later, became the oldest first-time member of the Top 10 since 1973.
Argentine reached career-high FedEx ATP Ranking of No. 3 during partnership
When play resumes on Tour, 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro will have a new coach alongside him. The Argentine confirmed on Saturday that he has parted ways with coach Sebastien Prieto, whom he has worked with since August 2017.
Prieto will switch to coaching fellow Argentine Juan Ignacio Londero. The former ATP Tour player picked up 10 tour-level doubles titles during his career and peaked at No. 22 in the FedEx ATP Doubles Rankings in 2006.
“I want to share that I have agreed with Sebastian Prieto to end our partnership, so that he can work with Juan Londero, while I continue my rehab process,” Del Potro wrote. “I’m very thankful to Piper for all of these years together. He is a great coach and an even better person. All the best!”
I want to share that I have agreed with Sebastian Prieto to end our partnership, so that he can work with Juan Londero, while I continue my rehab process. I’m very thankful to Piper for all of these years together. He is a great a coach and even a better person. All the best!
Del Potro has not yet confirmed who will replace him. Prieto helped the baseliner achieve several career highlights in 2018, including his first ATP Masters 1000 title at the BNP Paribas Open, first Grand Slam final in nine years at the US Open and achieving a career-high FedEx ATP Ranking of No. 3 that August.
The 31-year-old Del Potro has not competed since last June after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured right kneecap he sustained that month at the Fever-Tree Championships. He previously broke his patella in October 2018 at the Rolex Shanghai Masters, causing him to miss the last four weeks of that season and limiting him to five tournaments in 2019.
Kafelnikov’s News: His Roland Garros Run Won’t Be Replicated ‘For A Very Long Time’
Russian relives winning the singles and doubles titles in Paris
Yevgeny Kafelnikov made history at 1996 Roland Garros, becoming the first Russian man to win a Grand Slam title. But the former World No. 1 put his name in the history books at that event for another reason — that’s the last time any man has won both the singles and doubles title at the same major.
“I’ve got news for you: Nobody will [do it again] for a very long time,” Kafelnikov, who won that doubles crown with Daniel Vacek, told ATPTour.com. “If you ask me when the next time we’re going to see a champion in singles and doubles at the same Slam, I don’t see that happening for many, many years to come.”
The closest any man has come since was at the 2000 US Open, when Lleyton Hewitt won the doubles title with Max Mirnyi and reached the singles semi-finals.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Daniel Vacek celebrate their 1996 Roland Garros doubles title. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images Not only did Kafelnikov win both titles at 1996 Roland Garros, he dominated both draws. The 22-year-old played 35 sets at the event, and only lost one. How did he balance it?
“Easily,” Kafelnikov said. “I used my doubles matches basically as my preparation for the singles. You are practising elements in your doubles game that are really necessary for your singles: the return of serve, for example, volleys, serve. Instead of going to practise for one hour and 30 minutes, I used doubles for that. All the circumstances came together perfectly.”
Kafelnikov is a keen student of the sport, and he wasn’t thrilled when he saw his draw in Paris. Three of his first four matches came against Spaniards, and the other one was against Thomas Johansson, who proved a nemesis for the Russian throughout his career. But Kafelnikov beat Galo Blanco, Johannson, Felix Mantilla and Francisco Clavet without losing a set.
“It just shows how good my game was. If I wasn’t sharp I would easily lose to the players like Felix Mantilla or Francisco Clavet, who were really solid clay-court players,” Kafelnikov said. “But I was playing so well that none of those guys had a chance to get a sniff of beating me.”
Kafelnikov knew he’d have a tough test in the quarter-finals against Richard Krajicek, whom he beat in three tough sets the week before Roland Garros at the World Team Cup. But the Russian knew that the Dutchman was not as comfortable on clay as he was indoors or on grass, which played to his advantage in a four-set victory.
It wasn’t surprising that Kafelnikov was winning, but perhaps it was surprising that he went for four eight-kilometre runs around Court Philippe Chatrier during the tournament. Those runs came after his singles matches in the first round, third round, fourth round and quarter-finals.
“[It was] to keep myself physically in shape,” Kafelnikov said. “I ran 20 laps… strongly just to keep myself physically ready. I was running really, really, really fast. That shows me how physically strong I was.
“A lot of the [players] saw me. They were surprised. Two hours after the matches I went for a run. Many thought, ‘Okay he played one hour, 40 minutes against Clavet, he didn’t waste too much energy, why not go for another workout?’ They were looking at me and some of them were doing the same.”
Kafelnikov faced World No. 1 Pete Sampras in the semi-finals. The American legend rallied from two sets down against two-time champion Jim Courier in the last eight, and he also won five-setters in the second and third rounds.
But Kafelnikov was supremely confident. At the same event he defeated Krajicek in Dusseldorf, the Russian raced past Sampras 6-2, 6-2. In Paris, after a tense first set, he beat the top seed 7-6(4), 6-0, 6-2. Those were the only two wins he’d earn against Sampras in 13 tries.
“I just don’t want people to feel Pete wasted his energy on his way to the semi-finals and he had nothing left [and that] if he would have been fresher, I had no chance. I don’t see it that way; I’m not going to believe in that,” Kafelnikov said. “We all can sit here and discuss, imagine what would have happened, but I believe I was the better player, particularly in that tournament.”
At the same time, Kafelnikov and Vacek had moved their way through the doubles draw. The final against Guy Forget and Jakob Hlasek provided a good opportunity for Kafelnikov to get used to what it felt like to play for a major title. Kafelnikov/Vacek breezed to a 6-2, 6-3 triumph.
“My attitude with the doubles was, ‘You have the most important match in your life tomorrow, so just try to emulate what you’re going to feel like tomorrow, today.’ That’s exactly what happened,” Kafelnikov recalled. “I was really nervous because we were playing the final of a Grand Slam and tomorrow was going to be an even more packed stadium than we had that day. Don’t freak out when you see a full stadium tomorrow… All the elements came together in that tournament to do both, singles and doubles, so perfectly.
“My partner was over the moon. He even stayed the next day in town to help me to warm up [for the singles final].”
Kafelnikov only had one match left to make history. He faced German Michael Stich, who had upset defending champion Thomas Muster in the fourth round. The Russian had won six of their nine previous meetings, and he tried to treat it like a normal match, even if it wasn’t. Kafelnikov believed Stich could hurt him from the baseline more than Sampras did, so he was attentive to that, and his return game helped him to a two-set lead.
“I lost my first match point at 5-4 in the third set. It was [my] advantage on Stich’s serve, and he held his serve, got it to 5-5. Believe it or not I started cramping in my left leg out of nowhere because my nervous system got on edge… I can’t even remember the last time I had cramps [before that],” Kafelnikov said. “I told myself, ‘If you don’t get through this set you might not win it.’
“It is ironic, but that’s how important in my whole system that match was. It really cut everything out of my body. I left everything out on that court just to win that match.”
Kafelnikov went on long runs during the tournament, and yet he cramped during the biggest moment of his career. Kafelnikov held off Stich in the tie-break, hitting a forehand passing shot the German couldn’t handle. The Russian was so relieved, he threw his racquet high into the stands.
“I was really, really so confident, you cannot believe. You probably only get such feelings once or twice in your career where you feel like nobody can beat you. I can imagine what Djokovic and Nadal are feeling like right now because they’re mostly 365 days a year feeling that way. For me, against such competition like what I had to deal with in my career, that was a wonderful feeling.”
Kafelnikov beamed as he showed ATPTour.com his singles trophy from the tournament, which he still has displayed in his home. Now 46, he thinks it’s “pretty cool” that he is still the last player to win the singles and doubles titles at the same Grand Slam.
“I will definitely in my lifetime be the last one,” Kafelnikov said. “What I really want, if for some reason in my lifetime someone wins both in singles and doubles at the French Open, I would love to present the trophy to that person. But again, I don’t know if it will happen ever in my lifetime.”
Federer Posters On His Wall, Goffin Met His Idol During Dream Roland Garros Run
The Belgian provides exclusive insight into his 2012 run in Paris
David Goffin remembers it being difficult to study for school exams growing up because he’d want to watch Roland Garros on television. The Belgian’s family often made the three-hour drive to Paris to watch the clay-court major in person.
Little did Goffin know that his breakthrough as a professional tennis player would come at that same venue in 2012.
“It’s always a special place because the French Open is probably the biggest tournament we follow in Belgium,” Goffin told ATPTour.com this week. “When I played well in 2012, probably nobody knew me on the Tour and it was my first main draw at the French Open… it was the first time that people in Belgium saw me on live TV, so it was a big moment.”
Goffin became the first man since Dick Norman at 1995 Wimbledon to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam as a lucky loser. He had not yet cracked the world’s Top 100, but Goffin certainly made a name for himself.
Growing up, the Belgian had posters of Roger Federer on his bedroom walls. It was fitting that the Swiss superstar was his opponent in the Roland Garros Round of 16. Goffin even won the first set against the third seed.
However, his dream run nearly ended before it began. Portugal’s Joao Sousa beat the 21-year-old World No. 109 in the final round of qualifying 6-3, 7-6(3).
“I was really nervous because I felt that there was maybe an opportunity to get in my first main draw and the level was there,” Goffin said. “I lost a little bit my game that day mentally, and also physically, I was really tight. After that, I was so disappointed.”
Gael Monfils was struggling with a knee injury, forcing the Frenchman to withdraw from his home Slam. That gave Goffin his first major main draw opportunity. The Belgian would play 23rd seed Radek Stepanek.
“I knew he was a player with a lot of experience. Maybe the clay court is not his best surface, but I knew he would do everything on the court to win that match,” Goffin said. “I was just happy to be in the main draw. I had a lot of support, a lot of Belgians behind me. I enjoyed every moment in that match.”
Goffin weathered his nerves and a tricky opponent in Stepanek to advance 6-2, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.
That set a clash between the 21-year-old and 2001 Australian Open finalist Arnaud Clement, who was playing in his final Roland Garros. Goffin took a 5-1, 0/30 lead in the fifth set against the home favourite when, “it started to rain like crazy”, cancelling play for the day.
“During the night you can’t sleep well, you just imagine all the possible scenarios that can happen,” Goffin recalled. “The next day I came back for four points [to finish the match].”
Goffin was a lucky loser, but he was as confident as he’d ever been in his career, ousting Clement 3-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 6-2, 6-1. Next up was Poland’s Lukasz Kubot.
“I saw [when I walked on the court] that it was packed full of Belgians, a lot of flags. The atmosphere on that court was just amazing and I remember it because I was the first player on the court and probably waited 10 minutes for Kubot,” Goffin said. “When he finally came on the court, all of a sudden, they started booing him!”
Goffin eliminated Kubot 7-6(4), 7-5, 6-2 to continue his dream run and earn a shot at Federer.
“[There were] a lot of [Federer] matches that I saw before playing him,” Goffin said. “I remembered all the racquets he had, all the outfits he had. I followed him very much. Every match I watched on TV.
“I was happy a little bit to see that I would play against my idol, but also I was super nervous because I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t know how it is to play against him.’… I was very tight until the first point of the match.”
It was tough for Goffin to focus on building a game plan because of the nerves, but he was fully focussed on getting off to a quick start.
“If you don’t start really well and then you’re really nervous and then you lose your first service game and it’s 2-0, 3-0, then it’s tough,” Goffin said. “Roger normally starts his matches really well.”
Goffin won the opening set 7-5, and kept the second set close. But in the back of his mind, he was thinking, “I have an opportunity, but he will do something magical, that’s for sure.”
Federer raised his level as the match went on, eventually triumphing 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. Only one male lucky loser (Stephane Robert, 2014 Australian Open) has reached the fourth round of a major since.
“He’s very talented,” Federer said of Goffin. “I hope he can make it to the Top 20.”
Goffin’s accomplishments include climbing as high as World No. 7 and reaching the championship match of the 2017 Nitto ATP Finals. His breakthrough at 2012 Roland Garros went a long way to showing the Belgian what he was capable of.
“I think I proved to myself that I can win some big matches and also [hold up] physically,” said Goffin, who played 23 sets between qualifying and the main draw. “I proved to myself that physically I was good, because when you’re 20 years old, you never know. It proved to me that I have the level to go higher. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
How Monfils Made A Fan From A Foe While Making History At Roland Garros
Relive Monfils’ third consecutive five-set win at 2006 Roland Garros
Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September.
In 2006, Gael Monfils became the sixth man in the Open Era to win three consecutive five-setters at Roland Garros. Entering that tournament, a 19-year-old Monfils had not won one five-setter. It wasn’t just that he accomplished the feat, it was how he did it.
The former junior World No. 1 arrived in Paris with plenty of confidence, fresh off making his first ATP Masters 1000 semi-final at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. The 25th seed faced a roadblock in the first round against Andy Murray, who had beaten him in straight sets two weeks earlier. But inspired by his home crowd, he rallied from two sets to one down to defeat the eventual World No. 1 6-4, 6-7(2), 1-6, 6-2, 6-1 in three hours and 42 minutes. The Frenchman then battled back from the same deficit against Belgian Dick Norman, advancing to the third round with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-0, 7-5 victory.
The teen’s biggest test was still to come in eighth-seeded James Blake, a powerful right-hander with plenty of punch in his game and a set of wheels as quick as anyone’s on the ATP Tour.
“I remember the crowd understandably being extremely pro-Gael. To be honest, if I wasn’t playing him, I’d be a huge fan of his as well,” Blake told ATPTour.com. “He is such an entertainer and just fun to watch, especially at that young age when people hadn’t seen that kind of athleticism before.
“I thought it was my best chance to do really well at Roland Garros. That was my best year on Tour and I felt like I was playing well, even on clay. Gael was so talented and had power and speed that was shocking.”
Play began after 7 p.m. on Court 1, otherwise known as the Bullring, with both men seeking a berth in the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time. It was Monfils’ second appearance at the event, but it didn’t take him long to get the fans on his side.
Monfils served with a 6-2, 5-4 lead, and was two points from taking a massive advantage after saving back-to-back break points at 15/40. Blake had only converted one of 11 chances up to that point, but he crushed a forehand winner and then forced an error on the next two points to get back on serve, later evening the match at one set apiece. Play was then suspended due to darkness.
After splitting the next two sets, it looked like the higher seed might find a way through when he earned two break points at 2-1 in the fifth set. But Blake hit a backhand into the net and Monfils cracked a booming serve to save those opportunities. The Frenchman then made his move at 4-4.
Facing break point, Blake ripped two massive forehands that would have been winners against virtually anyone in the field, but Monfils clawed them back. The American came in for a Pete Sampras-like leaping overhead, but Monfils was there to get the ball back, and Blake missed a forehand volley into the net. That was the only advantage the teen needed, serving out his 6-2, 6-7(2), 7-6(1), 5-7, 6-4 victory in the next game after three hours and 21 minutes.
“It was a good satisfaction for me because it was the first time I made the second week [in a] Grand Slam,” Monfils said later that year. “[I did] this in France in front of my family and my friends, so for me that was amazing.”
Blake didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Monfils, inspired by the French, was simply too good for the former Top 10 star.
“I just couldn’t hold him off in the fifth set when he put so much pressure on me to hold serve. His serve was so powerful, that I was struggling to make any progress on his service games,” Blake said. “He made such unbelievable gets on my service games that it was difficult to have any easy holds or quick points. That was the difference, that he got that one elusive break in the fifth set.”
In a fourth-round battle of teens, Monfils lost to unseeded Novak Djokovic. The Serbian won the first two sets in a tie-break before pulling away. Even though Monfils couldn’t rally for a fourth consecutive five-set win, he certainly left an impression on Paris and the tennis world.
“I still think Gael is the fastest player to ever play on Tour. His ability to retrieve balls that I thought were easy winners was shocking,” Blake said. “I really couldn’t believe that his top speed was so fast. It seemed like it didn’t matter how far out of position he was on the court, he could recover for the next ball.”
Did You Know? Monfils’ best result at Roland Garros came in 2008, when he made the semi-finals. The Frenchman has made three additional quarter-finals in Paris.
Resurfaced: Gustavo Kuerten… Remembering 1997 Roland Garros
Twenty-three years ago, a relatively unknown Brazilian captured the imagination by wrestling away the Roland Garros trophy from the world’s finest dirt-ballers.
Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September. This story was originally published on 8 June 2017.
The abiding memory is of a stick-thin figure bedecked top-to-toe in yellow and blue, who unleashed explosive groundstrokes and a monotonous groan, which echoed around Stade Roland Garros, to wear down the best clay-court players the professional circuit had to offer. With each win as Gustavo Kuerten walked off court, came an infectious smile in acknowledgement of his growing legion of followers, to whom he became universally known as ‘Guga’.
“To win Roland Garros was unbelievable,” Kuerten told ATPWorldTour.com, on the 20th anniversary of his win. “It’s become more absurd as the years have passed. Now I know how hard it is to win a Grand Slam, but back then I kept questioning, ‘What is this?’ and ‘How did I win?’ It was simple and fun. In hitting new angles, I became a new player. I saw a new universe as a tennis player. In 1997, it was simple, ‘Oh, let’s win this’. It was only in 2000, with my second triumph, that I began to understand what had happened.
“Life was a new match, one that I couldn’t imagine. Now, 20 years on, it makes me curious about how Mats Wilander [17 at 1982 Roland Garros], Boris Becker [17 at 1985 Wimbledon], Michael Chang [17 at 1989 Roland Garros] and Rafael Nadal [who had recently turned 19 at 2005 Roland Garros] all felt in winning their first major titles at a young age.”
Kuerten had first visited Paris in 1992 with Larri Passos, his only coach throughout his professional career that ended at Roland Garros in 2008. In finding that tickets had sold out, the carefree spirit entered the grounds at night to hide inside the Court Suzanne Lenglen stadium, only to appear when the first spectators were looking for their seats. Yet by May 1997, he was assured of his place in the third Grand Slam championship of his career as one of only five Latinos – No. 10 Marcelo Rios, No. 53 Marcelo Filippini, No. 64 Hernan Gumy and No. 88 Fernando Meligeni – in the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings.
For the 20 year old had watched more matches as a fan on his television in Florianopolis, Santa Caterina, an island in southern Brazil, than he had played on the ATP World Tour circuit (45). But a win on Brazilian soil at an ATP Challenger Tour stop in Curitiba boosted his confidence and the five matches had not only helped to improve his consistency, but given World No. 66 Kuerten the conviction that he could produce his best performances. “The spirit was there. I knew if I kept pushing myself something very special would happen,” said Kuerten, who remembers a helicopter flew over the court at the start of the second set, creating a dust storm, during his three-set victory over No. 158-ranked Razvan Sabau in the Curitiba final of May 1997.
Lifting a trophy had effected a positive mental change in his on-court demeanour. “Guga initially had two difficulties,” Passos told ATPWorldTour.com. “His handling of the ball and the way that he defended. He had more issues moving to the right side, his forehand, but in Curibita, and subsequently at Roland Garros, we prepared tactics so that he could play with his backhand, which would become one of the best and deadly shots in the world. When he controlled the game with his backhand, he unsettled his opponents. While he liked to attack, he also had to learn how to defend.”
With renewed drive, strength and energy, Kuerten arrived in Paris with a small suitcase. Expectations were light, despite his recent success. “I came here to win one match,” smiled Kuerten, 20 years on. “I was not trying to win it, but I was trying to improve. As the tournament progressed, I needed to go away from the fantasy of potentially winning, so Larri was always very precise over how he planned my time. I just needed to feel the clay and I got better.”
Sticking with tradition, Kuerten and Passos stayed at the $70 per night, two star Mont Blanc Hotel, near the Porte de Versailles, a 20-minute bus ride to the courts. It was a 15-square metre enterprise, with two rooms and a corridor down the middle that allowed guests to pack their suitcases. Passos had stayed at the hotel since 1990, but it importantly ensured that Kuerten was far from the spotlight.
“I first stayed there as a junior in 1992,” said Kuerten, who won the 1994 Roland Garros junior doubles title with another future Top 10 player Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador. “We knew everyone from the cleaners to the owners. It was very simple.” Each night, the pair ate pasta at Victoria’s Trattoria and by day Passos, per superstition, would wear his favourite shirt to watch his charge progress through the draw. “As I began to win matches the press had a tough time finding the hotel,” said Kuerten. Passos adds, “By irony of fate, our hotel room in 1997 was No. 1.”
Kuerten’s run to the trophy, and his subsequent ascent to No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings four years later in December 2000, was a product of hours on the practice courts. The Brazilian always played with his heart, and he endeared himself to the tennis world by virtue of his personality and the fact that he didn’t hide his emotions.
“At the beginning, it was difficult to believe that he would be such a great tennis player,” admitted Passos, who first started working with a 13-year-old Guga in 1990. “But he was always a boy who loved to train. I had to change his two-handed backhand to a single-hander, then we began to work on the technique and the shape of his game.
“Guga loved what he did and, in addition to all of his technical qualities, he achieved what he did throughout his career as a result of the love he had to play. We worked with a lot of harmony, focus and lived for every moment. We used to have fun, play and laugh a lot. Sometimes we had more fun than we trained, but being on the court was always a very special time.”
At 1997 Roland Garros, Kuerten experienced “two separate weeks”: the realisation that he was performing better than he expected and then the switch in mentality that came as a result of beating Thomas Muster, the fifth-seeded Austrian ironman and 1995 champion, 6-7(3), 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the third round.
“I’d hit 10 drop shots against Muster, who yelled out in German, ‘What the hell is this? I’m playing my best tennis and this kid is killing me. Who is he? A genius?’ The crowd got involved and Muster was an amazing battler to the end. Then, struggling at 0-3 in the fifth set, at the change of ends, I said, ‘Get me out of here, he’s going to eat me!’ I was close to giving up, but my brother Rafael, sitting in the stands, told me, ‘You’ve come this far, get up and keep fighting.’
“After the Muster win, I had a full press conference in the big room. Before that I’d only spoken to two or three people.” Kuerten’s subsequent two-day victory over Andrei Medvedev, that transported him “to another universe” heralded a quarter-final against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the third seed and defending champion. The match was broadcast live in Brazil, and saw the arrival of his long-time PR manager, Diana Gabanyi, who would answer “99 per cent of the telephone calls” to the Mont Blanc Hotel – now, 20 years on, a tourist hotspot for Kuerten’s compatriots.
“I thought Kafelnikov was impossible,” said Kuerten. “Even if he didn’t play his best, I couldn’t win.” But he did, 6-2, 5-7, 5-7, 6-0, 6-4, and then the player dubbed by L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper, ‘The Clay Surfer’, felt that he had a real chance. “The intensity of the spotlight changed when I beat Kafelnikov, the favourite to retain his title. It was two separate tournaments from then on. I had great conviction. I knew the trophy was mine.”
By then the tennis world had fallen in love with the frizzy-haired and richly gifted player, a colourful and exciting personality, who sang in the locker room, played the guitar and listened to reggae in his free time. “After beating Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals, we both knew that the title could not escape us by the way he felt the ball,” admitted Passos. “Our conviction was so great that we called Guga’s house and asked the family to build a large gate outside the entrance of his house, because they had to be prepared for the harassment of fans in Brazil.”
Having beaten qualifier Filip Dewulf in the semi-finals, “the only match I was the favourite”, red-dirt warrior Sergi Bruguera – who is now Richard Gasquet’s coach – was favoured to add to his 1993 and 1994 triumphs. “Before he went out onto the court,” remembers Passos, “I said to him, ‘Guga you worked hard and did everything right, now go enjoy dessert.’”
Kuerten just smiled, thinking about the path he’d taken. His casual demeanour belied his intensity, and during the title match he showed no sign of nerves in ruthlessly dealing with his Spanish opponent in a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over one hour and 50 minutes. It was the 52nd tour-level match of Kuerten’s career, his “best match of the fortnight” and ensured he had become the lowest-ranked Grand Slam champion since Mark Edmondson (No. 212) at the 1976 Australian Open.
While the Brazilian fans broke into the samba as they celebrated their first Grand Slam triumph since Maria Bueno’s victories more than 40 years previous, the gifted newcomer received the trophy from his idol Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. “I played like I did in practice and I really enjoyed it,” said Kuerten, 20 years on. “In beating Bruguera, I thought to myself, ‘This is my trophy and I deserve it.’ Permitting myself to dream about raising the trophy was crucial for us.”
Passos had promised Kuerten’s father Aldo, who had passed away as the result of a heart attack whilst umpiring a match in Curibita when Guga was eight in 1985, that he would one day develop his son’s tennis skills. It had been Passos’ job to take a rough diamond and to polish it, to nurture Guga’s dreams and, ultimately, set new goals that would drive and inspire him for the rest of his career. “When the final was over, we met in the locker room,” recalls Passos. “We went up to the rest rooms. We prayed, we thanked God, and dedicated the title to his father. “We looked at each other and I said to him, ‘Let’s continue being the same! Let’s not change!’ We then hugged and wept a lot.
“I always say that Guga has a larger heart than his body, and it was with this great heart that Guga won Roland Garros in 1997.”
When one of the ATP World Tour’s most popular champions pops up at tournaments around the world today, as Kuerten will when he presents the trophy to the 2017 Roland Garros champion on Sunday, it is easy to cast your mind back back to the halcyon days of 20 years ago when he received the first of his three Roland Garros trophies (also 2000 and 2001). Simply, because Guga hasn’t changed. He continues to dedicate his life to his family, that was once more affected by tragedy in November 2007 by the loss of his greatest supporter, his brother Guilherme, who suffered from cerebral palsy.
“Tennis helped me value my family, the pieces that they put together for the great moments,” says Kuerten, from his home on the magical island of Florianopolis, in southern Brazil. “It was a huge work effort. I could maintain my values and the way I approach life, because of them. It’s difficult to maintain the same life with money and fame, but life has always been more important to me than tennis or any Grand Slams I have won. Tennis ends and you need to return to normal.”
Today, 20 years on from beating Bruguera to complete an almost spiritual journey to the clay-court title in Paris, Kuerten’s countrymen and women empathise with the boy who came from a simple family and overcame numerous obstacles with just the same attitude as he had when he was a wide-eyed child dreaming of success in sport and life.
“My life was never normal again after 1997 Roland Garros, yet I have tried to preserve and maintain my approach to life,” said Kuerten. “My father was a huge part of my life, my idol and I dedicate my life to him. He really liked to try his best, and he always fought for what he wanted. So I think I got some of this from him. He just wanted his sons – me and my two brothers – to grow up and do well in their lives and have a good reputation.”
Guga’s heart permitted him to dream and his tremendous work ethic, which continues to this day through the Instituto Guga Kuerten, allowed him to fulfil his potential. His father would, indeed, be very proud.
Mahut/Herbert beat Marach/Pavic for their first Roland Garros title
Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September. This story was originally published on 9 June 2018.
Nicolas Mahut appeared to be tearing up after partnering Pierre-Hugues Herbert to their first Roland Garros title in 2018. Suddenly his six-year-old son, Natanel, sprinted across the red dirt and leapt into his father’s waiting arms as the crowd cheered him on.
Mahut said that Natanel had asked him for two days how he can get down from the stands onto the court. And while he did not know how it would play out, the Frenchman was ecstatic it happened.
“I knew that they had found a possibility. I didn’t know if he was going to go through the locker room or the players’ entrance. I knew he was going to find a way,” Mahut said. “These two, three minutes, when we hugged with Pierre-Hugues and then my child arrives on the court, I felt really blessed. I’m really fulfilled. I don’t think I can achieve something or live something bigger.”
Seven years ago, Mahut came excruciatingly close to winning the Roland Garros title with Michael Llodra, leading Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan 4/2 in a third-set tie-break for the championship before falling short. But on Saturday, Mahut joined Herbert to wash away those memories, defeating Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic 6-2, 7-6(4) to become the third all-French team in the Open Era to lift the trophy on the terre battue.
Natanel got in on the celebration, leading Herbert and then his father in a ‘floss’ dance to the delight of the home crowd. It is safe to say that for everyone involved, it is a moment that will last a lifetime.
“Roland Garros is “the” tournament. When you’re a French guy, you want to win it. You dream of winning such a tournament,” Herbert said. “We were more thinking about the singles tournament. But winning the doubles title, it’s as important. And winning at home, there is nothing better in terms of feelings.”
Herbert and Mahut joined Henri Leconte/Yannick Noah (1984) and Julien Benneteau/Edouard Roger-Vasselin (2014), saving six of seven break points in their one-hour, 40-minute victory. The duo became the first French team to win three or more major titles together in the Open Era. Herbert and Mahut, who also won the 2015 US Open and 2016 Wimbledon, defeated the ATP Doubles Race To London leaders for the third time in as many ATP Head2Head meetings.
“It had been really painful in 2013, because I thought it was my only chance of winning Roland Garros. Thanks to Pierre-Hugues, we are here five years after. I’m smiling, and I can tell you there is a real difference between losing in the finals and winning a final,” Mahut said. “We are in front of you trying to explain what we are feeling, but it’s almost too late. The emotion is difficult to tell. What we lived, we won the match point, and the two, three minutes afterwards, when we try to explain it, it’s already too late. It’s almost indescribable. It’s just utter happiness.”
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