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Top 10: Foreign favourites at Roland-Garros

By Julien Pichené   on   Friday 15 April 2016
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How can a player from abroad win over the home crowd? At Roland-Garros, while you don’t necessarily have to be born in the shadow of the Porte d’Auteuil, it needs to become your second home. You need to be re-born there, or to die in vain, like so many attacking players have done, coming to the net in an attempt to tame the exacting Paris clay. The crowd at Roland-Garros are as biased towards home players as they are at any stadium, but they stand out from other crowds in the way that they have always cheered on  their foreign favourites as much (if not more…) than the French, with passing fancies and indeed life-long love affairs with players both great and small. They have cheered Patty, sweated with Hoad, thrilled to Pecci, defended Connors tooth and nail, and finally exulted with Kuerten and Federer. Here are just a few of their darlings over the years.

PATTY, John Edward "Budge" (USA)
An American in Paris 
Winner in 1950

He is the one who brought serving and volleying to Paris and ushered in an era of attackers who went on to dominate the tournament for almost 20 years! The elegant "Budge" made his home in the French capital and always had as much support from the crowd as his contemporary Marcel Bernard. He was a playboy with a volley made of spun gold, who reached the quarter-finals in 1946 (only to lose to the abovementioned Frenchman, after coming within two points of the match), the semi-finals in 1948 (losing to Jaroslav Drobny) and the final in 1949 (beaten by Frank Parker). Finally he lifted the trophy in utterly heroic fashion in 1950, with his last three victories all going to a fifth set (11-9 in the quarters against Dorfman, 13-11 in the semis against Talbert, and 7-5 in the final against Drobny, one of his great rivals). Patty won every tournament there was in Paris in the 1950s (the Coupe Porée, Coupe Canet, Coupe Gillou and the French Indoors, which later went on to become the BNP Paribas Masters), but after his French Open triumph, he only ever made it as far as the semi-finals thereafter, in 1954. Nevertheless, he was the crowd’s favourite, even on that awful day in 1958 when he "achieved" the impossible feat of losing to Robert Haillet, despite leading 5-0, 40-0 in the fifth set…

Also read: Budge Patty: "I decided to live in Paris as a tourist"

HOAD, Lewis (Australia)
The talented dilettante
Winner in 1956 

The spectators fell in love at first sight with Lew Hoad in 1953, the year that he won the doubles with Ken Rosewall even though the pair were only 18 years old and were in Europe for the first time. In a decade where the Americans were still dominant, praise was heaped on the energy of these "whizz kids", as they were known,  both born in Sydney in 1934. Rosewall was popular in Paris, but the crowd always preferred the attacking genius of Hoad to the former’s hefty hitting. Part of the appeal was no doubt that Hoad’s genius was tempered by a certain laziness. Despite the best efforts of Harry Hopman, considered to be the best coach in the world, it proved impossible to tame the party animal that was Hoad – indeed, the night before his only singles title in Paris, he was out on the town until the wee hours, drinking vodka with his Russian contemporaries. He won in straight sets the following day, which hardly set a good example but certainly added to his mystique. Who knows : perhaps he would have gone on to win the tournament two or three times if he had not thrown his lot in with the pro circuit the following year. Like all players of his generation who turned pro, he returned to play the French Open at the beginning of the Open era. His grand finale came in 1970, by which time he was running a tennis club in Malaga. Hoad reached the fourth round, winning his opening match 7-5 in the fifth set, battling cramp and feeding off the electric atmosphere that he and the crowd generated.

A star from another galaxy
Semi-finalist in 1949 and 1968 

Comparisons across the years are always fraught with inaccuracy. Nevertheless, this 98-kilo beast of a man, with his in-your-face attacking tennis, scar on his left cheek, volcanic temper and irresistible charm of a Hollywood cowboy, was perhaps the all-time Centre Court favourite. "He is so handsome, he seems to radiate light…" said Tennis de France magazine in 1968 of the Porto Rican who was already a grandfather, yet returned to the French Open after a near 20-year career as a pro. A semi-finalist at the age of 39, Gonzalez was indubitably the star of the first Roland-Garros of the Open era, which was played under a blue, blue sky, notwithstanding the metaphorical cloud of the recent May uprising. He made up for lost time with six matches that thrilled the Parisian crowds who filled the stands up to heavens, from whence their hero seemed to have descended!

NASTASE, Ilie (Romania)
The tennis jack-in-the-box
Winner in 1973 

He was in trouble right from his first ever appearance at the French Open, in 1966, when he won the doubles with Ion Tiriac and celebrated by leaping precariously over the Centre Court net in celebration! Ilie Nastase was subversive, incorrigible and always ready to cock a snook at the authorities. He was both ruffian and clown, blowing hot and cold for almost 20 years at Roland-Garros where he was as famous for his deft touch as he was for his permanent tomfoolery, much of it close to the bone. Of the multitude of tricks up his sleeve, the crowd was alternately in paroxysms of laughter or in shock as he tied actor Jean-Paul Belmondo’s dog to the umpire’s chair, threw a black cat at the highly superstitious Adriano Panatta, had a coffee during the warm-up and tried to play a mixed doubles match with a squash racquet! And yet despite all the controversy and indignation, the talented Romanian was always the main attraction of the tournament right up until his final match in 1984. If anyone could fill the stands, it was Ilie. And while not all the spectators appreciated his excessive behaviour, the crowd simply could not do without a player who always had a trick up his sleeve. Isn’t that the greatest proof of love!

PANATTA, Adriano (Italy)
The first star in colour
Winner in 1976 

This handsome Italian, whose attacking brand of tennis saw him become the only player ever to defeat the seemingly unbeatable Björn Borg at Roland-Garros (twice no less, in 1973 and 1976), will always be associated with the move that saw the French Open being broadcast in colour on television. Between 1974 and 1978, the number of spectators quadrupled across the fortnight, and Adriano Panatta was taken to the hearts of both the cognoscenti and the general crowd. It was all thanks to a combination of his attacking flair and his finesse, and in particular since his style was the perfect riposte to those who favoured topspin all day long. He even proved himself capable of diving at the net to save a match point in the first round against Pavel Hutka in 1976, before going on to win the whole shebang. Down in no small part to Panatta, this was also the year that the "nouveau" crowd which had come over from other sports such as football began to do something that is taken for granted nowadays. Encouragements for individual players were heard for the first time in Paris, with the crowd shouting "Allez Adriano!" and "Allez Panatta!" throughout the tournament.

PECCI, Victor (Paraguay)
The shooting star who shone so brightly
Finalist in 1979 

With a diamond stud in his ear, a cheeky grin and an amazing service – which involved him looking like he was about to stab the ball every time he arched his racquet – Victor Pecci (photo) was the talk of the town in 1979. Not only did the Pirate of Asuncion make the final, but in front of a capacity Centre Court crowd cheering the name of their new hero, he managed to take a set (the third) on a tie-break from his majesty Björn Borg! There was a particular point which went a long way towards creating his sudden incredible reputation – a passing shot between his legs in the semi-final against Connors, the like of which had never before been attempted in a match of such importance. After the final, in a unique moment in history, he was the one carried off on the shoulder of the spectators who had poured out of the stands, as if drawn to him magnetically. He made another semi-final appearance two years later (after a win over Yannick Noah in the quarters) before struggling towards the end of his career, but Pecci’s moment of glory would never be forgotten. Particularly in Paraguay, where he was chosen as sportsman of the century.

The left-handed messiah
Semi-finalist in 1979, 1980, 1984 and 1985 

When they were playing him, some Frenchmen felt like they were away from  home! Jean-François Caujolle fell victim in 1980 to "Connors fever", as did Tarik Benhabiles in 1985. This particular malady has its first outbreak in 1979, at a time when the topspin generation, lead by Björn Borg, were in the ascendancy. After a six-year absence from Roland-Garros, the attacking, flat-hitting American was welcomed like a messiah, a superhero ready to fight the tyranny and injustice of the invincible Swede! Upon his arrival, Connors was already creating a stir by demanding money from journalists looking to interview him, but he soon had the crowd on his side. He lost unexpectedly in the semi-finals to Victor Pecci, who deprived him both of the spotlight and a chance to play Borg in the final, meaning that Connors was never able to achieve what he had set out to do. Despite behaviour that was borderline unacceptable – flipping the bird to a line judge in 1980, insulting  John McEnroe and Henrik Sundström in 1984, and threatening to walk off court when chair umpire Youssef Makar docked him a point in 1985 – Connors was very much the foreign favourite of the eighties. At the very end of his career, aged 38, he even won over the anti-Connors brigade by waging a heroic battle against a lad young enough to be his son, namely 19- year-old Michael Chang. An exhausted Connors retired just after he had levelled the match at two sets all, before being taken off court with the help of physio Bill Norris, and cheered by three generations of spectators. He was the patriarch. And on Friday 31 May 1991, we were all happy to be part of the tennis family.

Teen idol
Winner in 1999 

His was the name cheered most in the stadium at the  end of the last century. Andre Agassi was loved throughout the world, but it was in Paris that "Agassi Mania" was born in 1988. The American was going through his rebellious period, wearing denim shorts and a blond wig, and the crowd instantly fell for the youngster who was barely 18 but sweeping all before him right through to the semi-finals. And it was in Paris, on the clay that bogged him down so many times in the past, that he struggled the most, just like Roger Federer. He was in the running every year that he played but it took Agassi until 1999, by which time he was a wise old sage with a shaven head, to complete the Slam (and indeed the full house, as he had won everything there was to win, including the Davis Cup, the Masters and the Olympic Games). Up until 1998, Agassi had "enjoyed" glorious and often ignominious failure, despite the unconditional support of the crowd, in particular the younger fans, for whom he was tennis incarnate.

KUERTEN, Gustavo (Brazil)
A heart of clay on Centre Court
Winner in 1997, 2000 and 2001 

His native Florianapolis may be 9,886 kilometres from the Porte d’Auteuil, but Gustavo Kuerten always felt at home here. "It’s like I was playing in my home town, in my club," he said. He was a complete unknown in 1997 when he won the first of his three French Open titles. Paris was immediately under the spell of this quirky young man with incredible skills, a seemingly elastic one-handed backhand, a winning smile and what has since become a legendary yellow and blue carnival outfit. Overnight, the previously anonymous Kuerten became Guga the star, who would go on to win two more titles, in 2000 and 2001, and provide the tournament with some of its most abiding images. Who can forget the moment when he slapped hands with all the spectators in the front row, or the enormous heart which he drew on Centre Court with his racquet? The crowd loved him, and so did the players. Paul-Henri Mathieu, who was the last player to beat him in 2008, said that he would have preferred to have been up in the stands that day, cheering him on as a fan.

Also read: The Kuerten years

FEDERER, Roger (Switzerland)
The darling of the new millennium
Winner in 2009 

No other player has been as keenly supported in recent history as Roger Federer, and nowhere more so than Roland-Garros, where the Swiss was long confined to a supporting role – an unusual and painful one for him – behind Rafael Nadal. Ever the opportunist, Federer came to the fore in 2009 – the year that the Spaniard was caught cold by Robin Söderling. On two occasions – against Tommy Haas in the fourth round and Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis – he was forced to come from behind, relying on his shot selection and the unconditional support of the crowd who backed him to a man. Rare have been the occasions when a victory has been so unanimously celebrated at Roland-Garros, with the crowd seemingly delighted that a wrong had been righted and the Swiss maestro finally had his hands on the trophy. Who knows when the man with the 17 Slams will bid farewell to the French, but when he does, he can be sure of an emotional send-off from the crowd to rival that afforded to Connors in 1992.

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Next Article: Legends - Budge Patty: "I decided to live in Paris as a tourist"
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