Roland Garros Flashback: Teenage Safin Stuns Agassi In R1
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.
It was always going to be a question of when and not if Marat Safin announced his arrival on Tour. That moment came in his Grand Slam debut at 1998 Roland Garros, when the 18-year-old Russian qualifier stunned Andre Agassi 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 and handed the American his first opening-round defeat in Paris.
Agassi was enjoying a career resurgence and had already climbed from No. 110 to No. 20 that year in the FedEx ATP Rankings. But he struggled to find his footing that day, committing 82 unforced errors and allowing the fearless Russian to dictate their baseline rallies.
“He didn’t serve so well the last three sets,” Safin said. “But his other shots were very good – forehand, backhand. So it doesn’t matter if he serves good or serves bad.”
Safin, then No. 116 in the rankings, already possessed some of the biggest groundstrokes in the game. Although he was still learning how to reign his power in, his knockout punches landed on Court Suzanne Lenglen as the crowd gasped at the speed of his winners.
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Meanwhile, Agassi lamented not playing more aggressively against his opponent. He cited a shoulder injury and said he didn’t feel comfortable swinging out in the latter stages of the match.
“My normal play would be taking a lot of those balls in the air and finishing the point,” Agassi said. “With my shoulder hurting, I was letting those balls drop. I just didn’t close them out.”
Safin’s draw didn’t exactly open up after his breakthrough win. After learning he would face defending champion and No. 8 seed Gustavo Kuerten in the next round, the teenager mentally booked a flight back home.
“I’m not ready to win this tournament,” Safin declared. “I’m very happy to be in the second round, but for sure I will not beat Kuerten.”
But the qualifier did just that, stunning Kuerten in five sets and going on to reach the fourth round. Two years later, Safin secured his first Grand Slam at the 2000 US Open and became World No. 1 two months later.
Agassi’s lowest moment in Paris would be followed by his greatest one. He returned the following year and scored a five-set win over Andrei Medvedev in the championship match to complete his Career Grand Slam, joining Rod Laver as the only men in the Open Era at that time to accomplish the feat.