Redemption at Roland Garros

As a young child (elementary school age), I loved tennis, especially Chris Evert. I was so young that tennis matches did not hold my attention for very long. I preferred hitting tennis balls against walls to watching! But still I idolized Chris, and would become sad anytime my parents told me she had lost a match.

Fast forward 6 or 7 years. I was 14 years old. The year was 1988, and I happened to turn on the TV and see that tennis was being played. Not just tennis, but Wimbledon. Not just Wimbledon, but a men’s semifinal match between Miroslav Mecir and the man who would become my first tennis love, Stefan Edberg.

I think the match was in its final set. I began watching and couldn’t stop. I was entranced by the blond Swedish serve-and-volleyer with better defense than any serve-and-volleyer had the right to possess. I was more excited by all the balls he could retrieve than anything else. When he won the match, I was thrilled, and for the first time ever I actually took the time to find out when the next match would be shown so I could watch.

As you may remember, 1988 happened to be the first of three straight Wimbledon finals contested by Stefan and Boris Becker. I think it also might have been Wimbledon’s first Monday final (I remember being so very bummed out that the match wasn’t on Sunday, when I had been all ready to watch — good ol’ London rain!) If Stefan had lost that match, who knows if my renewed interest in tennis would have stuck. As it was, he won, and a diehard tennis fan was minted.

(I became more of a men’s tennis fan than a women’s tennis fan then. I still liked women’s tennis, but I think my teenaged hormones drew me more to the men. It wasn’t the women’s fault at all – I wanted to be them, but I wanted to marry the men. I was a silly teenager, what can I say…)

That also happened to be the year that Steffi Graf won her incredible Golden Slam. I remembered watching the U.S. Open final between her and Gabriela Sabatini. Though I rather liked Gabi — with her long dark hair and gorgeous Argentine looks — I was also really excited to witness the history of the Grand Slam. (I also remember my parents were less than thrilled. But they were diehard Chris and Martina fans…)

Because I became a tennis fan at Wimbledon, the first French Open (also called Roland Garros) I ever watched was the following year, in 1989. It was incredibly exciting to watch an adorable Spaniard named Arantxa Sanchez defeat Steffi Graf in the final. But I was also excited because my main man Stefan was in the final against, of all people, Michael Chang.

Michael Chang, for heaven’s sake! He who had absolutely miraculously defeated Ivan Lendl. I had watched parts of that match, and it was an amazing upset, but I was quite certain there was no way he could beat Stefan.

If you’re a tennis fan, you know what happened next…

… I experienced my first big French Open Fave Upset.

I was sad when Stefan lost, but I also sort of figured it was no big deal. Stefan would have other chances, right? He was still quite young (22 or 23, I think). Surely he had many, many years left in his career to pick up that title.

I watched him year after year, listened to the pundits admire how well he was playing and say that surely, this man is the favorite for the French Open. (I know this makes no sense in retrospect, but when Stefan’s beautiful game was really flowing, it was hard not to think he could win everything, even on clay.)

As it turned out, Stefan never returned to the French Open final. I don’t recall him even getting close. I think the furthest he got was the quarterfinals.

Stefan retired in 1996, 8 years after I started watching and admiring him. As it turns out, just 2 years after I began watching, another young male tennis player caught my eye. His name was Pete Sampras. He won the U.S. Open as a 19-year-old in 1990 and became my second-favorite player.

I actually remember in 1991 at the French Open when he played Thomas Muster. Muster was an Austrian and an absolute beast on clay (he would win the title a few years later). And he was Pete’s first-round opponent. I spent the first two sets rooting for Muster because I was convinced he would make it further at the French Open than Pete would. And Muster won those two sets. But when Pete mounted a comeback over the next two sets, I couldn’t resist. I cheered him on heartily and was overjoyed when he wound up winning the match in the fifth set.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve stuck with my original guns. Pete won that match, but he promptly lost in the next round. I was very bummed out about it!

1991 wasn’t a total washout. I discovered my third-favorite player, Jim Courier, when he defeated Andre Agassi in five sets in the final. (I did not like Agassi at all in those days, and I was delighted that Courier kept Agassi from winning his first Slam. I know, I am an awful person.)

The next few years gave me more of the same. Stefan kept losing early. Pete couldn’t get over the quarterfinals hump. But 1994 was really painful. Pete had finally regained his 1990 U.S. Open-winning form in 1993 when he won Wimbledon, then the U.S. Open again. And he topped all that off with a win at the 1994 Australian Open.

Sound familiar? Yes… it was exactly the scenario Novak Djokovic faced in both 2012 and this year (more on this later.) Pete was 3/4 of the way to a Sampras Slam (not that it was called anything like that at the time, but dang, that would’ve sounded good, wouldn’t it?) — holding all 4 Grand Slam titles at the same time.

But clay was still Pete’s weakest surface. As much as he owned Jim Courier off the clay, Courier owned him on it, and he owned Pete again in 1994. Another quarterfinals loss, and another French Open disappointment for yours truly.

1995 may have been the lowest of the low for me, French Open-wise, and favorite-player-wise. Pete lost in the first round. Stefan lost in the second round. The final was an interesting matchup — Michael Chang versus Thomas Muster — and it was heartwarming to see Muster finally win the French Open he’d been dreaming of since he rehabbed his leg after a freak car accident.

But here’s what was happening. I was basically watching two different tournaments at the French Open. I was watching for my favorites — Pete and Stefan — but resigning myself to the fact that they wouldn’t last till the second week — or if they somehow did, they wouldn’t last long. So I started learning about the clay-court specialists that I knew would take over the tournament once Pete and Stefan lost. I found my favorites and cheered them on.

But then came 1996. Pete made the semifinals of the tournament for the first time, after years of losing early or getting no further than the quarters. In fact, he finally beat Jim Courier in the quarterfinals. In a fifth set, no less! Pete’s coach and friend Tim Gullikson had succumbed to brain cancer earlier that year, and after that quarterfinal victory I thought, “maybe this is the year. Maybe Pete is fated to win this tournament for Tim.”

And then came Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who beat Pete and won the tournament.

For well over a decade (a decade and a half, really) after that, I knew I was just a hopeless curse on my favorite players. Stefan retired that year, and though I got my hopes up every now and then, deep down I think I knew Pete wasn’t ever winning the French Open, either.

Pete retired in 2003. For whatever reason, no player really caught my fancy for years after that. I kind of liked James Blake. I kind of liked Andy Roddick. I did not like Roger Federer AT ALL. I’m not sure if it was because it all seemed to come too easily to him, if I found him arrogant, or what, but he just never excited me. (If I’m honest, I also didn’t like how quickly he started winning Slam titles and threatening all of Pete’s records.)

When Rafael Nadal came along, I kind of liked him, but honestly it was mostly because he seemed to be keeping Federer from winning the French Open. (Hey, if Pete could never win it, I sure as heck didn’t want this upstart Federer winning it either!)

It was 4 years of drifting aimlessly through tennis, watching it but not really getting excited by any one player, until that fateful day in 2007 when I decided to turn on the TV and watch the U.S Open. I had my curiosity piqued when I heard the announcer say that Novak Djokovic would be playing next. I had heard about the Serbian kid who had beaten Federer and Nadal in the same tournament earlier that year. I remember thinking, “let’s see what he’s like.”

As it turns out, I fell in love the moment I saw him play. The rest is history.

He reached the final and lost to Federer, but he won my heart for good.

My lousy relationship with the French Open remained iffy at best. My new fave won the Australian Open the following year, which was exciting. And he did then reach the French Open semifinal, which was something considering how often Pete and Stefan had faltered in quarterfinals or earlier. That might have even got me wondering if perhaps Novak might succeed where Pete and Stefan had failed so frequently (and often spectacularly).

The following year, though, my worst fear was realized: Federer won the French Open, reaching the milestone that neither Stefan nor Pete had ever been able to reach. I probably threw a tantrum when that happened. (Okay, maybe not. But I’m sure I pouted a lot that day.) The 2010 French Open might have been even worse: Novak lost in the quarterfinals to Jurgen Melzer, after being up 2 sets to love no less!

On one hand, that was a low point: Novak never lost before the semifinals again after 2010. On the other hand, it might have been the last truly stress-free French Open I had. Because after 2010 came 2011, and we all know what happened then: Novak 2.0, aka The Serbinator, aka Godjovic was born.

Nothing in my entire tennis-watching career had prepared me for 2011 Novak. Stefan, though a fine player and one who reached #1 and kept it for a decent amount of time during his career, was never a very dominant #1. Pete was a dominant #1, except when he wasn’t. The thing about Pete is that he really cared only about the Slams, and even then he considered Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to be the most important. Australia was a distant third, and the French Open was barely even on his radar.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that Pete may have set a lot of records, including 6 straight years ending the year with the #1 ranking, but he was really not an incredibly dominant #1. Not the way Novak became in 2011.

The French Open that year was absolutely petrifying for me. Novak had amassed an absolutely insane match winning streak at that point, and that streak was marked by Novak’s repeated defeats of Rafael Nadal. It was starting to look as though Novak could beat pretty much anyone, including Nadal at the French Open. If he did that, he would be halfway to a Grand Slam. No man had even been halfway to a Grand Slam since Courier in 1992!

It was all going so well… until it wasn’t.

First Fabio Fognini happened. (Pulling ridiculous antics to get normally-not-allowed medical treatments for cramps in his previous round match.)

And then Federer happened.

(You will never convince me that Fognini’s subsequent withdrawal from his quarterfinal with Novak did not at least contribute to his loss to Federer in the semifinals.)

You look at the rest of Novak’s year — his domination of Nadal in both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals — and it’s hard not to make the case that, if Novak had only beaten Federer in that semifinal, he’d have then beaten Nadal in the final and won the Grand Slam. That’s a hypothetical in the extreme, of course. But still. Not hard to imagine it happening.

Instead, I got a second chance for a non-calendar year Grand Slam (aka Novak Slam) in 2012, after Novak won the 2011 Wimbledon and U.S. Open and then won an incredibly long, physical, hard-fought battle of an Australian Open final versus Nadal at the beginning of 2012.

Could Novak have managed to win that French Open title if rain hadn’t managed to interrupt their final at the worst possible moment? Novak had won a set and taken an advantage in the next set when the rains came. The momentum was on his side. It’s not hard to argue that had they continued, Novak might have pulled out the victory.

Then there came 2013. Rafa wound up in Novak’s half of the draw. (thaaaaaaaaanks) and their semifinal was a de facto final. Novak was up a break in the fifth set. UP. A. BREAK. Then he went for a smash, touched the net, lost the point and the game and the set and the match.

2014: I don’t even know what happened in that match because I was at church and couldn’t watch it. I’ve not been able to find it since. All I know is that Novak actually won the first set, but he couldn’t do anything else, even though Nadal was gassed by the end of the fourth set. (I heard Novak got sick, which certainly would explain what happened to him, at least partially.)

2015: NOVAK FINALLY BEAT RAFAEL NADAL AT THE FRENCH OPEN. Unfortunately, somehow that match wound up being a QUARTERFINAL rather than a final, and Novak still had two flipping matches to play. One of which, the semifinal against Andy Murray, not only went five sets but also ran into a precious rest day that Novak surely needed to prepare for the final. Even so, it didn’t seem possible that he might lose to Stan Wawrinka.


So you see that I’ve had a VERY long history of disappointment with this tournament. For 26 years I watched my favorites flounder and flop at the French Open. And I’ve also spent the last five years riding the emotional roller coaster that was “There’s no reason why Novak Djokovic shouldn’t win the French Open.”

Add the fact that Novak was, once again, going for the Novak Slam — after Pete had failed to pull it off in 1994 and Novak himself had failed to do it in 2012 — and I hope you’ll understand why the two weeks of Roland Garros this year were among the most stressful of my tennis-watching life.

… wait.

He won, didn’t he?

Well glory be and hallelujah! Novak Djokovic actually won Roland Garros this year!

He overcame so much. He overcame the immense and impossible-to-overstate pressure that came from his annual quest to win the French. He overcame the whispers that some of his “aura” had dissipated thanks to losses during the clay warm-up season. He overcame the “asterisk talk” that came when Rafa withdrew from the tournament after the second round. He overcame the “he’ll never have a better chance to win the French than this year!!” talk. He overcame 4 straight days of tennis without a rest day in between after torrential rains delayed matches, including a complete washout on the day of his fourth round match. He overcame nasty murmurs of “he could’ve been defaulted!” after throwing a racquet in anger that bizarrely bounced and nearly hit a line judge. He overcame the ridiculous assertion that his post-match celebration was “manufactured” and “manipulative” in an attempt to “win over the crowd.”

And, in the end, he overcame his own obvious nerves as he tried to close out the match to win the one Slam tournament he had never won.

He even overcame what was likely the most difficult obstacle of all: the fact that he was my favorite tennis player playing at the French Open.

Thank you, Novak Djokovic, for making my Roland Garros Redemption happen at long last.