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Top 10 saved matchpoints by future Roland-Garros champs

By Julien Pichené   on   Thursday 08 December 2016
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No fewer than ten times in the history of Roland-Garros, players have saved a matchpoint at some point in the tournament and then gone on to lift the famous trophy, changing their careers and lives in the process. Former champions René Lacoste (1927), Gottfried von Cramm (1934), Margaret Osborne (1946), Margaret Court (1962), Rod Laver (1962), Adriano Panatta (1976), Gustavo Kuerten (2001), Gaston Gaudio (2004), Anastasia Myskina (2004) and Justine Henin (2005) all – some more than once – came within a point, or a few seconds, of defeat.

1927 – René Lacoste: twice against Bill Tilden in the final
(6/4 4/6 5/7 6/3 11/9)

On Sunday 5 June 1927, everybody who was anybody in Roaring Twenties Paris shrugged off the cold and drizzle to make their way to Stade Français to cheer on “The Crocodile” against the practically invincible American, Bill Tilden. The press at the time reported the “indescribable enthusiasm” of the 5,000-strong pro-Lacoste crowd the moment where the tactically adept Frenchman levelled the match at 9-9 in the fifth set, after having saved two championship points. For the second matchpoint, “Big Bill” believed that he had served an ace. The decision was contested, and the fans who leaned forward to make their displeasure clear to the line judge may have been surprised to see Henri Cochet, Lacoste’s friend and team-mate.

Demoralised, Tilden, whose mental fortitude had made him almost unplayable between 1920 and 1926, would lose the match two games later, via a double fault. In September of that year, a French team featuring Lacoste would again get the better of Tilden, this time in the Davis Cup final. A new tennis arena – Roland-Garros Stadium – would be built the following year so that those players, known as The Four Musketeers, could defend the Cup.

Read more: René Lacoste, the Crocodile

1934 – Gottfried von Cramm: once versus Jack Crawford in the final
(6/4 7/9 3/6 7/5 6/3)

Before World War II, it was not uncommon for players to indulge in a spot of brandy during games, a habit that appears inconceivable and unadvisable when viewed through the prism of the modern game. When Jack Crawford was unable to take advantage of a matchpoint in his favour at 5-4 in the fourth set, he decided to drown his sorrows in cognac. From that point onwards, the Australian inevitably fell away in the match, paving the way for Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm to win the first of his two French Open titles. “Literally groggy from the cognac and unsteady on his feet, Jack Crawford held on until the last ball of the match with a kind of desperate energy,” recounted Auto-Journal at the time.

Clearly, Crawford had not learnt his lesson from the US Open final, nine months earlier. Up 2-1 against Fred Perry, he had also opted for liquid courage, but proceeded to only win one more game in a 3-2 defeat. After prevailing in Australia, Paris and London in 1933, a triumph at Forest Hills would have made him the first man to complete the Grand Slam – an expression that was invented to describe the feat that escaped him.

1946 – Margaret Osborne: twice against Pauline Betz in the final
(1/6 8/6 7/5)

In the first tournament since World War II, the Americans ruled supreme in the women’s competition, reflecting a level of global dominance that had lasted a decade. In Paris, just like in London and New York, the last four was made up exclusively of competitors from the USA. Pauline Betz claimed the Wimbledon and US Open titles, but fell at the final hurdle at Roland-Garros, where she was beaten by her dear friend, Margaret Osborne, with whom she had arrived late on the day of the final, after the pair got mixed up on Line 10 of the Paris Métro, which branches off into two one-way sections as it heads in the direction of the Porte d’Auteuil stop.

Despite their close relationship, the two players did not hold back on the court: Osborne claimed the title, after seeing off two matchpoints for Betz. Triggering a period of huge success for Americans in Paris (9 singles titles and 9 doubles titles between 1946 and 1956), the Oregon native would later be crowned champion for a second time in singles (1949), and three times in doubles with her partner, Louise Brough (1946, 1947 and 1949). She did manage to arrive on time for all of them...

Read more: 1946 - Liberation!

1962 – Rod Laver: once while facing Martin Mulligan in the quarter-finals
(6/4 3/6 2/6 10/8 6/2)

Rod Laver was not one for drinking brandy between sets and it paid off with a Grand Slam. All tennis aficionados know the story: the gifted Australian is the only player to twice accomplish a calendar-year Grand Slam (1962 and 1969). A less well-known fact is that during the year of his first Slam, he found himself down 2-1, 4-5 and 30-40 in Paris to his compatriot, Martin Mulligan, a clay court specialist who would eventually take up residence in Italy. How would tennis historians regard Laver today if he had not managed to save that matchpoint with a winning backhand volley?

In his autobiography, Laver dedicated four pages to the match in question, which could have gone either way, and to an infamous fit of anger exhibited by Mulligan in particular. Unhappy with a decision made at 8-8, he proceeded to insult the umpire and the crowd, an extremely rare occurrence at the time. “I was thoroughly amazed to see him take a ball and hit it violently with the clear intention of striking the line judge,” recalled Laver. The man who came so close to denying Laver “the feat of the century” on 28 May 1962 would leave Centre Court to a chorus of boos and jeers.

1962 – Margaret Court: once versus Lesley Turner in the final
(6/3 3/6 7/5)

Based on statistics alone, Margaret Court is the greatest player in the history of women’s tennis. In singles, doubles and mixed doubles, she won all there was to win several times, and her total number of major singles titles (24) remains a record to this day, although Serena Williams gets closer with every passing year. A five-time winner in Paris, the dominant Australian had to battle her way through three-set matches in every final she played, and even saved a matchpoint in the 1962 decider, the year she first conquered Roland-Garros.

The woman she defeated, her compatriot and doubles partner Lesley Turner, would later lose the 1967 final to France’s Françoise Durr from a seemingly unassailable position (she was 4-2 and 30-0 up in the third set, before losing four games in a row). Court, however, rarely experienced that type of misfortune, losing just one major three-set final out of nine. She is also the last female player to complete the treble – singles, doubles and mixed doubles – at Roland-Garros, which she achieved in 1964.

Read more: Margaret Court's profile

1976 – Adriano Panatta: once against Pavel Hutka in the first round
(2/6 6/2 6/2 0/6 12/10)

Adriano Panatta’s Italian and French Open double reads like an improbable adventure story. The Italian became a star in the spring of 1976, as a heatwave hit Europe, but it could all have been so different. But as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave, and Panatta owes part of his Roland-Garros success to a daring acrobatic leap in his first-round match with the little-known Pavel Hutka, an ambidextrous Czech.

At 9-10 and 30-40 in the fifth set, Panatta volleyed a let ball, somehow struck another volley with the frame of his racket, and then dived like a goalkeeper to reach an attempted passing shot by the Prague native. The eventual champion finished on the ground, but the volley was in (which he had not seen straight away), and he wrapped up the match a few minutes later. The feeling of relief he enjoyed as he left Centre Court must have been a familiar one, as the previous week in Rome, he had saved no fewer than 11 matchpoints in a first-round clash with Kim Warwick, 10 of which came when the Australian was serving! Panatta’s reputation as a determined battler was well-deserved.

2001 – Gustavo Kuerten: once against Michael Russell in the Round of 16
(3/6 4/6 7/6 6/3 6/1)

When the valiant, diminutive Michael Russell, who was ranked 122nd in the world and had come through the qualifying rounds – and had never won a single match on clay before the 2001 French Open – found himself leading 6/3 6/4 5-3 and serving for the match, Central Court spectators could be forgiven for thinking they were about to witness one of the greatest surprises in the history of Roland-Garros. But Gustavo Kuerten had other ideas, emerging victorious from an incredible and breathless 26-shot rally.

Suffering from a groin strain and a blistered right foot, the world No. 1 subsequently dug deep to turn the match around, propelled by a supportive crowd for whom he drew a heart in the clay on Philippe Chatrier Court, a gesture he would repeat a week later when he claimed his third title in Paris. “I’m blessed here,” he said. “I love Roland-Garros because it’s the place where all my dreams came true.”

Read more: Gustavo Kuerten : "Roland-Garros 2001 was my best 'Guga moment'!"

Kuerten vs Russell, Roland-Garros 2001 round of 16

2004 – Anastasia Myskina: once versus Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Round of 16
(1/6 6/4 8/6)

As chance would have it, it was in Paris and on clay that the first three significant chapters of Russian tennis were written. At Roland-Garros in 1996, Yevgeny Kafelnikov landed Russia’s first major title, and then in 2002, on the other side of the Seine in Bercy, the trio of Kafelnikov, Marat Safin and Mikhail Youzhny captured the country’s first-ever Davis Cup. Two years later, back at Roland-Garros, Anastasia Myskina became the first Russian woman to clinch a Grand Slam singles title, but her run to the final was not without its difficulties, as demonstrated by the matchpoint she faced in the Round of 16 against her fellow Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, when 6-5 down in the third set.

Although the graceful Muscovite subsequently disappeared from the circuit – she brought the curtain down on her career at the age of 27, in 2007, following a series of injuries and personal problems and is now Russia’s Fed Cup captain – she spearheaded a new generation of successful Russian players, such as Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova, among others.

Read more: Anastasia Myskina: "Elena and I went for a walk on the Champs-Élysées in the wee hours with the trophy, drinking and singing!"

2004 Roland-Garros : the moment where everything could change

2004 – Gaston Gaudio: twice against Guillermo Coria in the final
(0/6 3/6 6/4 6/1 8/6)

Down two sets to love, and on course to equal the record for the lowest number of games won in a Roland-Garros final, Gaston Gaudio threw down his racket in a fit of pique. Guillermo Coria was leading 6-0 6-3, and the title seemed destined to go his way. But then, at 4.17 in the afternoon, the match took a highly unexpected turn. Struck by cramp, possibly brought on by stress, at the worst possible moment, Coria began to falter, and Gaudio launched his comeback. Coria, the younger of the two Argentinians, still found himself with two matchpoints in the fifth set, but failed to take advantage.

Gaudio, like a condemned man suddenly released from prison, played with abandon and ten minutes later he was lifting the famous trophy, while Coria, on the verge of tears and seemingly slightly embarrassed by what had just transpired, had to settle for the runner-up plate. To console his compatriot, Gaudio, during an emotional speech, predicted that he would win the tournament in 2005. He could not know, of course, that 2005 would mark the beginning of the Rafael Nadal era. Coria never properly got over the events of that crazy Sunday afternoon. Curiously, neither did Gaudio: just three years later, both players had fallen out of the top 100.

Top 5: Roland-Garros men's finals:

Top 5 Men's Finals

2005 – Justine Henin: twice versus Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Round of 16
(7/6 4/6 7/5)

In the Round of 16, Justine Henin, who had claimed the women’s singles title in 2003, was up against it in her match with Svetlana Kuznetsova, a specialist of three-set marathons at Roland Garros (20 to date). After saving two matchpoints at 5-3 down in the third, Henin eventually triumphed after three hours and 15 minutes of play. “To win the match, you have to really want that last point,” said the imperious Belgian. “And on those two matchpoints, I could see from Kuznetsova’s expression and general attitude that she was afraid. After having come back to 5-4, I felt like I could do no wrong.”

Those were prophetic words, because following that tight encounter, Henin never lost another set, losing just 13 games, including just two in the final versus France’s Mary Pierce. After having surprisingly been eliminated early on at the 2004 tournament while suffering from a knee injury, Henin was back to her best. She would win again the following year, equalling the record for the number of consecutive sets won at Roland-Garros in the process. Kuznetsova, meanwhile, would later bounce back from wasting matchpoints in two consecutive Round of 16 matches at Roland-Garros (she had done the same against Anastasia Myskina in 2004) by lifting the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen herself in 2009.

Read more: Justine Henin: "Roland-Garros feels like home"

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