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From the Vault: The greatest French Open moments this century

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Roar Guru
23rd May, 2020
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In the normal world, tennis fans would’ve been preparing for the start of the 2020 French Open this week.

However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused nearly all sports worldwide to be suspended, and while a few competitions are only starting to get back up and running again, French Open organisers have decided to delay this year’s tournament until late September.

The decision copped plenty of criticism given it was to have been scheduled only a week after the US Open (which itself remains in doubt), and now there is every chance it could be pushed back even further to start on September 27.

Wimbledon has already been canned for the first time since World War II, with their tournament organisers citing it would’ve been logistically impossible to hold the event given the number of essential staff (including the players, ball boys and media) that are required to be on-site exceeding the maximum number of people allowed in any one area.

So, in the absence of any live tennis, sit back and enjoy as we look back at some of the greatest French Open moments from this century.

Ashleigh Barty’s breakthrough title
We couldn’t start without recapping Ashleigh Barty’s phenomenal run to the title last year, in which she became the first Australian woman since Margaret Court in 1973 to salute at Roland Garros, and anywhere since Samantha Stosur conquered New York in 2011.

After a brief sabbatical from the sport in 2014, Barty returned in 2016 and slowly but surely set about climbing the rankings, winning her first career title in Malaysia in 2017 and finishing the year inside the world’s top 20.

She then reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the 2019 Australian Open, defeating the now-retired Maria Sharapova in three sets in the process, before claiming her first big title when she defeated Karolina Pliskova in the final of the Miami Open.

All that proceeded what would be her big career breakthrough at Roland Garros, where she was pitted into a tricky draw that saw obstacles such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and defending champion Simona Halep placed in her path to the title.

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The Queenslander was drawn to face Williams, a three-time champion of the event in 2002, 2013 and 2015, in the fourth round, and then reigning Australian Open champion Osaka in the quarter-finals and Halep in the semi-finals.

Instead, she ended up facing Sofia Kenin in the fourth round, Madison Keys in the quarter-finals and young American Amanda Anisimova in the semi-finals.

The semi-final against Anisimova would forever go down as one of the most dramatic French Open semi-finals in recent history – Barty shot out to a 5-0 lead in the first set only to lose it in a tiebreak.

Ash Barty during Wimbledon 2019

(Photo by Shi Tang/Getty Images)

17-year-old Anisimova would open the second set with a 3-0 lead, but Barty would rattle off the next six games in a row to take the second set and then force a one-set shootout.

The American again led early in the final set, before Barty took it by the same second set scoreline (6-3) to advance to her first Major final.

There, she defeated another first-timer, the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova, to capture her first Grand Slam title in what was her first appearance on Court Philippe Chatrier.

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She was barely threatened from the outset, skipping out to a 3-0 lead in the opening set and eventually strolling to a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Vondrousova, who was the first teenage female Grand Slam finalist since Caroline Wozniacki at the 2009 US Open.

It was also the youngest women’s Grand Slam final in over a decade, when Ana Ivanovic defeated Dinara Safina to win her lone title in 2008.

Barty has since ascended to the top of the rankings, captured the season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen and earlier this year reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open for the first time, where she lost to eventual champion Sofia Kenin.

Rafael Nadal’s domination at Roland Garros
No man or woman has dominated any Grand Slam tournament like Rafael Nadal has dominated the French Open.

The Spaniard debuted at the tournament in 2005 and made an immediate impression, defeating Roger Federer in the semi-final and then overcoming Mariano Puerta in four sets in the final to become the first man since Mats Wilander in 1982 to win the French Open on debut.

He also became the first teenager to win a Major since Pete Sampras won the 1990 US Open at age 19, and is also, as of 2020, the most recent teenage man to salute on the biggest stage of tennis.

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That would set off an unprecedented period of dominance that has continued into the present day, with Nadal winning four consecutive titles before his unbeaten run came to an end at the hands of Robin Soderling in 2009.

However, the Spaniard was quick to bounce back, with a win over Soderling in the 2010 final setting off a run of five consecutive titles, in which he defeated three other separate opponents – also defeating Federer, Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer in 2011, 2012/14 and 2013 respectively.

After a poor start to the 2015 season, Nadal for the first time didn’t arrive at Roland Garros as the tournament favourite, that tag going to Djokovic whom many believed would finally be able to break his French Open curse that year.

Therefore it was no major surprise that when the pair met in the quarter-finals, it was Djokovic who saluted, handing the Spaniard just his second defeat at the tournament and becoming the first (and so far only) man to beat him in straight sets.

Nadal won his first two matches in the 2016 tournament, before being forced to withdraw due to a wrist injury that also ultimately forced him out of Wimbledon.

Nonetheless, he was back for another tilt at the title in 2017, and won the tournament without dropping a set for the third time after thrashing Swiss backhander Stan Wawrinka in the final.

Two more titles, both won at the expense of Dominic Thiem in 2018 and 2019, saw his title haul at Roland Garros extend to a record 12, and his win-loss record at the tournament to 93 wins against just two losses.

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To put that into perspective, Nadal’s 12 French Open titles is as many AFL premierships as Richmond have won in their history.

As players are required to win seven matches to win a Grand Slam tournament (without walkovers), by winning his 13th French Open title, Nadal would register his 100th match win at Roland Garros in the championship match.

That will have to wait until September-October, and it’s possible by then that the Spaniard could also overtake Roger Federer’s haul of 20 Major singles titles, assuming he also successfully defends his US Open title (that tournament is still in doubt as to whether it will run this year).

Roger Federer finally breaks through in 2009
After years of being denied by Rafael Nadal in the summit match at Roland Garros, many feared Roger Federer might never live to see his dream of finally winning the French Open turn to reality.

After winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open in 2004, all that was left for Federer to do to complete his set of Grand Slam titles was win the French Open, a tournament where he had never previously advanced past the quarter-finals.

Perhaps it seems rather unfortunate that his first attempt to complete his set of Grand Slam titles came in the year 2005, which also saw the tournament debut of then-18-year-old Nadal, who was being touted as a future force on the clay courts.

Federer, then 23, lost to the Spaniard in the semi-finals in what was their first meeting at a Major. He would fall to the Spaniard in the next three French Open finals, the latter by the scoreline of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, and by that stage it was going to take a miracle for the Swiss Maestro (or anyone for that matter) to figure Nadal out on the Parisian clay courts.

Roger Federer

(AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

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But after Nadal (more recapped below) and Novak Djokovic (who had only won one Major to that point of his career) fell in the first week of the 2009 tournament, the bookies immediately installed Federer as the favourite to finally end his French Open curse once and for all.

The day after Nadal’s fall, Federer himself appeared headed for the exit gates when he fell two sets to love down against Tommy Haas, only to dig himself out of the grave and keep his title chances alive.

He then proceeded to beat Gael Monfils in the quarter-final before again coming from behind to beat Juan Martin del Potro in the semis, to set up a championship showdown against Robin Soderling.

Federer would finally bury years of disappointment in Paris, defeating the Swede in straight sets to finally complete his Grand Slam set and, in the process, equal the then-men’s record of 14 Majors held by Pete Sampras.

The Swiss Maestro would then break Sampras’ record at the following Major, Wimbledon, and add another five Majors to his haul for a men’s record of 20.

Robin Soderling upsets Rafael Nadal in 2009
Just as many thought Rafael Nadal could never be beaten at Roland Garros, the whole course of history changed forever on May 31, 2009.

Going into this particular fourth-round match-up, Nadal had a perfect 31-0 record at the tournament since his debut in 2005, and hadn’t lost a set since the 2007 final against Roger Federer.

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Additionally, the last time he faced his opponent, Robin Soderling, the Spaniard won easily for the loss of just one game at the Rome Masters only a month earlier.

All this seemed to point towards yet another Nadal victory. Or so we thought.

Soderling, whose coach Magnus Norman had reached the final in 2000, burst out of the blocks, taking the opening set 6-2 and putting an end to 32 consecutive sets won by Nadal at the French Open.

The Spaniard hit back to take the second set in a tiebreak, and at one set all, many believed Nadal would indeed pull another trick out of the book, as he had done numerous times over previous years.

However, Soderling would make things all the more interesting taking the third set 6-4 – marking the first time Nadal had lost two sets in any one match at Roland Garros – and the fans who had become accustomed to seeing the Spaniard win all the time could smell an upset.

The fourth set would go into a tiebreak, where Nadal’s unbeaten record would go on the line. Soderling would hold his nerve to dominate the tiebreak seven points to two – and send the King of Clay crashing out of the tournament.

The very same day, women’s defending champion Ana Ivanovic would also bow out of the tournament, losing to Belarussian teenager Victoria Azarenka in straight sets.

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Soderling then backed up his momentous win over Nadal by beating Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez in the quarter and semi-finals, respectively, to become the first Swede since his Norman in 2000 to reach the French Open final.

He ended up facing Roger Federer in the final, but would prove no match for the Swiss Maestro, losing in straight sets.

Though his bid for a Grand Slam title ended in disappointment, Soderling’s run to the French Open final, which he would again emulate in 2010 (losing to Nadal on that occasion), made him a favourite among tennis fans.

Sadly, injuries would get the better of Soderling and he would not serve another ball in anger after 2011, though he would not officially announce his retirement until just before Christmas in 2015.

Novak Djokovic finally completes the ‘Nole Slam’
Seven years after Roger Federer completed his Grand Slam set in Paris, it was Novak Djokovic’s turn.

As was the case with Federer, Djokovic found it tough attempting to complete his set of Grand Slam titles at a tournament which Rafael Nadal had dominated for a long time.

Going into the 2012 tournament, the Djoker, who had just turned 25, had won the previous three Majors – Wimbledon and the US Open in the previous year, as well as the Australian Open earlier in 2012, in which he defeated Nadal in an energy-sapping five-set finale lasting nearly six hours.

He had to come from behind to beat Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before beating Roger Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals to book a championship showdown against Rafael Nadal.

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Novak Djokovic plays a backhand

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

But as Federer found out in the noughties, Djokovic would find facing Nadal in a French Open final a mountain too high to climb, falling in four sets in a match stretched over two days due to weather. He would also be denied by the Spaniard in the 2014 final, also in four sets.

And as if that wasn’t enough, after beating Nadal in the quarter-finals, and then Andy Murray in a two-day, five-set semi-final, Djokovic would be stopped in his tracks by Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 final, losing in four sets after taking the first set.

Surely, he could not be denied again when he arrived at Roland Garros in 2016 having won the previous three Major tournaments, as he did in 2012.

The Serb, who by that stage had turned 29, arrived in Paris as the tournament favourite and his chances of winning the title suddenly multiplied when nine-times champion Rafael Nadal withdrew mid-tournament due to a wrist injury.

He eventually went on to reach the final for the fourth time, and there he faced Andy Murray, who had qualified for the summit match at Roland Garros for the first time after defeating defending champion Wawrinka in the semi-final.

Djokovic’s dream of finally lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the first time was at risk of being dashed when he dropped the first set 6-3. At that point, Murray had not lost a match after winning the first set at Roland Garros.

However, the Serb would work his way back into the match, and soon after took a two-sets-to-one lead.

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He then secured a double break to serve for the title at 5-2 in the fourth set, however Murray would peg back two late games before the Serb finally served it out at 6-4 in the fourth set to finally get his hands on that elusive French Open title.

Not only that, the Djoker also became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Majors simultaneously, and became the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the first two Majors of a calendar year consecutively (i.e. the Australian and French Open titles).

He joined modern-day greats Federer and Nadal, as well as others in Andre Agassi and Rod Laver in having won each of the four Majors. Of them all, only Agassi has achieved the “Super Slam” (i.e. won all four Majors, the Olympic singles Gold Medal and the season-ending ATP Finals).

Maria Sharapova completes her Grand Slam set – and wins the French Open again in 2014
Early in her career, Maria Sharapova once said she felt like a “cow on ice” on the clay courts.

Though the Russian struggled in her early years playing at the French Open, it was actually at this tournament in 2004 where she reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final, before going on to win the following Major, Wimbledon, upsetting Serena Williams in the final.

It wasn’t until 2012 that she was in a serious position to finally break through for her first title on the clay courts of Paris.

Then ranked second in the world, the Russian saw her chances of winning the title multiply as the big names fell progressively in the first week – namely ex-champions Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

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Then-world number one Victoria Azarenka also fell before the quarter-final stage, leaving Samantha Stosur and Petra Kvitova as the only real threats to Sharapova remaining in the final four.

Sharapova subsequently thrashed Kvitova in the final four and proceeded to face Sara Errani, who’d upset Stosur in three sets in her semi-final, in the championship match.

The Russian justified her pre-match favouritism, thrashing the Italian for the loss of just five games to claim her first French Open title and complete her Grand Slam title set, having won each of the others once (Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008).

She then returned to defend her title the following year, but fell short in the championship match against Serena Williams after starting strongly.

However, it would not be long until she was back on the champions’ podium at Roland Garros, claiming her second title in three years with a three-set victory over Simona Halep in the championship match.

Of the five Major titles Sharapova won, this was the toughest one yet, as it was also the only three-set Grand Slam final she contested.

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She said after the match: “This is the toughest grand slam final I’ve ever played and all credit to Simona, who played a terrific match. I never thought seven or eight years ago that I would win more Roland Garroses than any other grand slam”.

Those were just some of the most memorable French Open moments of the 21st century. Some other honourable mentions include:

Martin Verkerk’s fairytale run to the 2003 final, which earned more television viewers in the Netherlands than when Richard Krajicek won Wimbledon in 1996.

Gaston Gaudio’s run to the title in 2004, in which he came from two sets down and saved a match point against Guillermo Coria in the final. As of 2020, this is the last time that an unseeded man won a Major title, and the last time a man came from two sets down to win.

Justine Henin’s hat-trick of titles between 2005-07, before her unexpected retirement on the eve of the 2008 tournament. The player she beat to win the 2007 title, Ana Ivanovic, went one better in 2008 by defeating Dinara Safina in the final.

Francesca Schiavone’s victory over title favourite Samantha Stosur in the 2010 women’s final.

Jelena Ostapenko’s dramatic win against Simona Halep in the 2017 women’s final, in which she came from a set and break down twice in the second and final sets.