The French Open, or Roland Garros as it is commonly known, is tennis’ ultimate Iron Man territory. Played on the most demanding surface of them all – the Parisian clay – it has been proclaimed by tennis players and pundits alike, to be the most difficult out of the four Majors to win.
Over the years in tennis history, the best players found out it is not just skill that it takes to triumph, but graft, tenacity, patience and perseverance are all virtues of a Roland Garros champion.
In this featured piece, we take a look at eight Grand Slam winners who never quite matched those virtues and fell short when it mattered most.
Undoubtedly one of the best servers in tennis history, and one of the greatest tennis players of all time, American Pete Sampras is top of the pile. Before Roger Federer rose to prominence over 15 years ago, Sampras held the record of winning the most Grand Singles titles of any man with 14.
But ‘Pistol Pete’ never won the French Open in his career, meaning he failed to complete the career Grand Slam, with his best return on the Parisian dirt being a semifinal in 1996 where he lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia who went on to win the title that year.
Sampras’ failure to win the Coupe des Mousquetaires in his decade-long dominance meant that his status as the best player of all time diminished, with the likes of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic taking that mantle in the GOAT debate.
Second in the list is the German great Boris Becker.
Being a former World No.1 and winner of six Grand Slam singles titles in his career, Becker is synonymous among the tennis fraternity for winning his first Major title at Wimbledon in 1985 whilst he was 17 years, 227 days old.
At the time he became the youngest ever men’s champion in a Grand Slam ( a record that was later broken by Michael Chang of the United States when he won the French Open in 1989, at 17 years, 110 days old).
Becker’s rise to stardom was nothing short of meteoric. He was too talented for a player of his age that the German Tennis Federation invested 1.3 million DM for his training in 1978.
He turned professional in 1984 and almost immediately won his first tour title at Queens a year later. Two weeks after his success at London’s Queens Club, Becker would win the aforementioned first of his six Grand Slams at SW19. But the now 52-year-old did not win a French Open title, and even more remarkable, he actually did not win a clay-court title throughout his professional career.
He is however, a three-time semifinalist at Roland Garros (1987, 1989, 1991).
There are just a few players in tennis who portrayed the art of serve-and-volley with such deftness as Stefan Edberg.
The talented Swede, a former World No.1 during his playing days, won six Grand Slam singles titles in his pro career. Edberg won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open titles on multiple occasions, but he was foiled in his attempt to complete the career Grand Slam after missing out on the French Open crown.
His best chance came in 1989, where he beat Boris Becker in the semifinals but fell short in the championship match to 17-year-old Michael Chang. He was up by two sets to one and had several break-points in the final two sets, had a break in the final set and lost. As it turned out, it was Chang’s only Grand Slam title.
Another player who fell mighty short in his attempt to complete a career Grand Slam is American great Jimmy Connors. The former World No.1 has mopped an unmatched record of 109 singles titles on tour, with eight of those coming in Grand Slams, including five US Opens, two Wimbledons and one Australian Open.
Connors was such a stalwart in his prime years and is often regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. He held the record of 160 consecutive weeks at No.1 (a record which has been bettered by Federer) and a career total of 268 weeks, and is one of only six men (Wilander, Rod Laver, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal) to have won three Grand Slams in a single calendar year.
But it worth pointing out that Connors, who achieved that feat in 1974 of winning three of the four Majors, did not participate at the French Open that year after he was banned from the event due to his association with the World Team Tennis. It was until later in his career when he made a return to Paris, but he would only make the semifinals on four occasions (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985).
Connors’ relentless desire to win meant that his career spanned over two decades, but he never quite solved the French Open puzzle.
Hailing from Sydney, Australia, John Newcombe is one of a handful of players who translated their Grand Slam singles success on the doubles’ court. Newcombe won seven Grand Slam singles titles, and a total of 17 titles in doubles.
Newcombe was athletically built and a great competitor. His serve, volley and forehand were his most formidable weapons and he is one of few players to have held the World No.1 ranking in both singles and doubles.
Newcombe triumphed on multiple occasions at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open. But a French Open title eluded him throughout his singles career, with his best result in Paris being a quarterfinal in 1965 and 1969 respectively. However, he can find solace from the fact that he won a French Open doubles title in his career.
Much like fellow countrymen Sampras and Connors, the mercurial John McEnroe did not win a French Open title in trophy-laden career. The shaggy-haired American did come agonizingly close in 1984 to break his duck, but could not prevent a stunning comeback from old nemesis Ivan Lendl in the final.
McEnroe led his Czech rival by two sets, but could not sustain his energy and would later admit it was ‘the worst loss of his life’ after losing in five pulsating sets.
The seven-time Grand Slam champion referenced his collapse in that final to missing a 12-inch putt to win the Masters in golf. You would certainly have to concur with McEnroe here as he posted the best win-loss record of any calendar year in 1984 (82-3), and that defeat to Lendl was tough pill to swallow.
Venus Williams has made 22 visits to Paris to play the French Open. But surprisingly, the legendary American never won the singles crown throughout her career.
Now, at the twilight of her playing career as she approaches 40, she continues to defy age and remain an inspiration to many up-and-coming sportsmen and women who are looking to ply their trade well into their late-30s.
Being the older of the two Williams’ sisters, Venus has amassed seven Grand Slam singles titles with five of those coming at Wimbledon and two at the US Open.
Her best chance of winning at Roland Garros came in 2002 when she lost to her sister Serena in straight sets. It was a bittersweet moment for Venus, whose chances of triumphing at the game’s most demanding surface are very much over.
Martina Hingis is another all-time great who is very much the definition of ‘seen it and done it’. She was precociously talented from such a young age, winning three Grand Slam singles titles in 1997 whilst still only 17 (she was technically 16 when she won the Australian Open that year).
But despite the illustrious tennis career she had, Hingis failed to conquer Paris on a singles court, where she finished runner-up on two occasions in 1997 and 1999 respectively.
Her 1999 final loss still lives long in her memory due to the nature of that defeat.
Hingis led Steffi Graf 6-4 5-4, and had the match in her racket when she served for the championship. But she suffered one of the most calamitous of collapses, and Graf who just moments earlier looked out of sorts, congealed her game and broke back.
The rest was history. Hingis could not digest that defeat and it would take some convincing by her mother to return for the trophy presentation.
The Swiss won five Grand Slam singles titles in her career.