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Françoise Dürr: "I wasn’t the most gifted player, but I was a fighter"

By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Wednesday 12 April 2017
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"I realised the other day that it was going to be 50 years since I had won Roland-Garros. That’s frightening! I didn’t realise that time had passed by so quickly, but I don’t have any regrets. I’ve done so many things, lived on a boat for two years, travelled to the four corners of the earth, making friends here, there and everywhere… I didn’t win a lot of prize money, but I’m rich in terms of experiences." Françoise Dürr is one of only five French women, along with Suzanne Lenglen, Simonne Mathieu, Nelly Landry and Mary Pierce, to have captured the women’s singles title at Roland-Garros. Her win came 50 years ago, in 1967. She managed 10 titles at the event all told in the various categories, and was involved in the fight for parity between men’s and women’s tennis. Her performances on the court were matched only by her qualities off it.

Her memories of tennis

"I don’t know how old I was when I first started playing tennis. My whole family played so it has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Mum was a good second-grade player, Dad was French military champion and president of the Marseille tennis association. Every weekend we spent our afternoons at the club in Oran. I was six years old and too little to go on the courts, but I spent my time hitting a ball up against the wall – that’s all the opponent you need to learn how to play. And then from six in the evening, I would beg my parents to let me go and hit a few balls with them. I also used to play against the door of the garage of the family house which had a fair few hinges on it. And when the ball hit one of the hinges, that used to get me practising quick reactions, let me tell you!"

"Tennis was a game that lots of young people played in Algeria, and certain tournaments were also mixed. At my first tournament, when I was around 13 or 14 years, I beat one of the boys and made the semi-finals. That was a big moment for me at the time. I only really started seeing tennis as something other than a pastime when I won the French junior championships at Roland-Garros. At the time, the winners of the youngsters’ championships were picked to be part of the group that followed the French team. The president of the Federation himself asked Simonne Mathieu to bring me along, and that’s how I ‘got into’ tennis, which was by no means a direct path for people at the time."

At the french national championships in 1961

"First and foremost, Mum wanted me to take my baccalaureate, which I did, then I made the most of playing tennis to travel around: as a French junior player, I got to go and take part in tournaments in South Africa, Australia, the Caribbean… We would leave during the European winter for weeks at a time, even months. We were amateurs, but the clubs or federations would look after us and make sure that we were billeted with host families, and that gave us the chance to see some of the country we were in as well as playing tennis. We would have a match in the morning, then in the afternoon we would borrow our hosts’ car and go off and see places like the Grand Canyon... I was 20 years old, and my life at the time was simply wonderful."

"I didn’t have a coach until I was 14, and by then it was too late to correct some of the bad playing habits I’d picked up. I had a really strange style – I extended my index finger along the racquet handle, which really isn’t ideal. I do it in everything I do – it’s a natural reflex. Joseph Stolpa, who was my instructor then my coach, tried to correct it every way he could, including putting glue on that particular finger, but I couldn’t ‘feel’ the ball any more. So he decided to just accept it and looked at other ways. He told me: ‘To make up for it, you’ll have to bend your knees a lot more’. That’s why when you see me hit a backhand, I often have my knees really bent. It’s not a very orthodox style in terms of my wrist and my index finger, but the racquet head is in the right place when I play my shot!"

"What Mr Stolpa did manage to do was improve my service a little, making it better over time. but my strong points were my physical fitness and my tactical nous. I grew up on clay and my game was adapted to this surface more than any other, and I was always more comfortable on it than on quicker surfaces like grass or even the wooden floors that were quite common at the time."

"At the end of the day, I think that it might be the fact that I had a slightly strange game that led to me having the career that I did. A lot of opponents said that I was unpredictable because they never knew what I was going to do with my backhand!"

Her memories of Roland-Garros

"I must have played around 20 times at Roland-Garros if you count the last few years when I only entered the doubles (it was 19 to be exact). Before I reached the final in 1967, I’d been knocked out in the quarter-finals quite a few times at Roland-Garros and other Grands Slams. So when I won my quarter-final tie against Maria Bueno, who was my childhood hero (Bueno won seven Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the US Open), I felt a sense of freedom. And what is more, Ann Jones, who was my bête noire and whom I could have ended up playing in the next round, lost on the same day to Kerry Melville. That really motivated me for the latter stages of the tournament. I told myself that I could go all the way."

"I don’t know why, but the friend who should have knocked up with me on the day of the final couldn’t come, so I warmed up on my own, against a wall at Roland-Garros – which is no longer there, as it happens. I did say that the wall was all you need when it comes to opponents…"

"Before I went out on court, Mr Stolpa said ‘This is your chance, give it your all because you never know if you will play another Grand Slam final’. I remembered his words when I found myself 4-2 and 15-30 down in the third set to Lesley Turner. I was struggling from the baseline. Turner was like a crocodile, just like Chris Evert ended up being. She didn’t look like much of a player, but she never missed a trick. I had my back to the wall, but I kept my cool and changed tactics. I had to get out of the rut she had got me into by varying my shots, coming to the net or making her come in. I fought like a demon and I did it – I won the last four games of the final."

"I was a scrapper out on court. I wasn’t the most gifted player, but I was a fighter, I never gave up. I spoke with Lesley afterwards, and she said that she thought she had the match in the bag and took her foot off the gas a little. My fighting spirit did the rest."

Relive the last game of the 1967 Roland-Garros final between Dürr and Lesley Turner

Françoise Dürr – Lesley Turner, Roland-Garros final 1967

"I continued to do well at Roland-Garros after that, and I made the semi-finals twice in 1972 and 1973. But Mr Stolpa was right – never again would I reach the final of a Grand Slam in singles. That was my chance, and I had to take it."

"I didn’t really have the time to celebrate my victory. The following night, I was on a train to Germany to play in the Fed Cup – where I beat Lesley again, as it turns out. And there was no team party either. At the time, only those who were actually going to play made the trip, and there was no coaching staff. The player with the most appearances of the two was the captain! The only time there were any festivities was the traditional party that Jean Borotra organised at the end of Roland-Garros. I showed my face there then raced off to the station."

"But nothing special was organised in my honour – to a certain extent, my performance had surprised everybody. No Frenchwoman had won the singles at Roland-Garros in 20 years (since Nelly Landry in 1948) and I was not one of the favourites for the tournament, or even the final. After all, Lesley had already won Roland-Garros twice (in 1963 and 1965), and at the time I was far from being thought of as the best player in the world on clay. The lower expectations no doubt helped me in the way I prepared for the tournament."

Her Roland-Garros 1967 campaign (6th seed)

Round of 128: d. Glenda Swan 6/2 6/1
Round of 64: d. Stephanie De Fina 6/3 5/7 6/1
Round of 32: d. Kathleen Harter 6/0 6/4
Round of 16: d. Anna Dmitrieva 7/5 6/1
Quarter-finals: d. Maria Bueno (#3) 5/7 6/1 6/4
Semi-finals: d. Kerry Melville (#7) 8/6 6/3
Final: d. Lesley Turner (#4) 4/6 6/3 6/4

In 1967, being applauded by members of the French football team

"In 1968, I lost in the fourth round to fellow Frenchwoman Gail Sherriff. In the meantime, I’d turned professional, and I was playing exhibition matches rather than competitive ones, which made a huge difference. I wasn’t ready coming into Roland-Garros – an exhibition tie is never the same as a real one. The lack of matches is something that’s very difficult to manage because you are no longer sure of your own actual level at any given time. I don’t remember the match itself, but I should imagine that I was up against it with Gail, who knew me inside out and was generally my closest rival on the home front. In France, if I wasn’t playing, she was the one who one!"

"In terms of the atmosphere at the tournament that year, it was every bit as unforgettable as when I had won it 12 months earlier. With the strikes in May 1968, people weren’t going to work and the stadium was packed. There were so many people absolutely everywhere, climbing up the trees and getting onto the roofs of the apartment buildings opposite! There was a fuel shortage, so people were walking in from all around Paris and the surrounding area. They were happy, and there was an incredibly festive atmosphere. What a wonderful experience that was. Mind you, the foreign players heard what was being broadcast on the news and wondered what they were letting themselves in for. One day, I took Mum’s Citroen 2CV and drove Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson into the stadium, and they were more than a little concerned to see all the fuss that was going on (laughs)! I remember Ann Jones as well, who had to go all the way to Brussels to get petrol for her car."

"Navratilova, Court, Goolagong, King, Wade... I beat them all at least once, except Chris."

"I liked playing doubles. In Algeria, I often played with my brother or with Mum. I had my fair share of success in doubles, in particular at Roland-Garros. I won the women’s five times, with Gail Sherriff and Ann Jones, and the mixed three times with Jean-Claude Barclay. I also won the US Open twice, one of which was an unforgettable experience alongside Darlene Hard, who was a great player in the early 60s and who wanted to make a comeback. I was without a partner after Ann Jones hurt her shoulder. I asked if she wanted to play with me and she accepted – and we won, beating Margaret Court and Virginia Wade in the final after being 6-0, 2-0 down! I never won Wimbledon though. I played the women’s doubles finals six times, and lost every one."

"My worst tennis memory also comes from Roland-Garros. In 1973, I played Chris Evert in the semi-finals and lost 6-0, 6-1. She absolutely wiped the floor with me! A defeat like that, at Roland-Garros in the later rounds – that was not a nice experience. Chris is the only player that I never managed to beat. Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade, Rosie Casals, Ann Jones, Maria Bueno… I beat them all at least once, except Chris. There were times when I pushed her close, but I never beat her."

"Margaret Court was the stand-out player of my era, the one who was always ahead of the pack. She was one of the first women who really did what you could actually call physical preparation. She trained with the Aussie men’s players (John) Newcombe and (Tony) Roche, lifting weights and barbells... She added an athletic dimension to women’s tennis, and then Navratilova followed on from that with the diet aspect."

With Gail Sherriff, who often found herself second to Dürr in the French rankings. Together, they won the women’s doubles at Roland-Garros three times (1967, 1970, 1971).

Her main rivals

"After I won Roland-Garros, I was approached by George McCall from the USA to play in the first ever women’s professional tournament alongside Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals and Ann Jones. We signed two-year contract for a fee of US$ 20,000. I thought it was a fortune at the time!"

"Not that everything in the garden was rosy – we had a few problems along the way. Firstly there was the number of tournaments. We were playing in a different city every night, then travelling by bus to the next venue the following day. We got our suitcases out, played our matches then packed up and left again the following morning to go somewhere else. After a month, we were on our knees. And the quality of the venues was very up-and-down, and we didn’t have time to adapt how we played. We had to expect the unexpected every night. Sometimes the courts were not in a very good condition, or there were no lights, or the balls got dirty after just a few points… Not forgetting that most of the time, there were no separate locker rooms and we had to put stickers on the doors to tell the men not to come in while we were in there! At times like that, the four of us would exchange glances and wonder whether we had made the right decision… but we were pioneers."

"And we also made a lot of very close friends back at that time. We women had to stick together, particularly since we were travelling alone. Back then, there were no personal coaches, no backroom staff, no agents... And that made us all closer. Billie Jean King has remained a very good friend, as has Betty Stöve. We still call one another regularly, and try to meet up once a year."

"The guys laughed openly at us, saying: "An independent tour? Without the men? You're crazy, it'll never work"

"The Open era meant that we could make a living from tennis, but there was still a great deal of financial inequality. While the guys were earning US$1000, we were getting around US$100! So we decided to fight back. With Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals in particular spurring us on, around 60 of us players met in London at the Gloucester Hotel. We locked the door and swore that we wouldn’t come out until a solution had been found. And that is how the professional association of women’s tennis players (WTA) was formed, and we set up our own circuit. To begin with, the guys laughed openly at us, saying: "An independent tour? Without the men? You’re crazy, it’ll never work!" And look where we are now. But we had to fight for it."

"Winning a Grand Slam means you go down in the history of tennis. but to win Roland-Garros, for a French player, means in a way, you go down in history full stop. It touches everyone in the whole country – the non-sports media, the general public. Everyone is moved by it, which is why it is so important to win at home. It’s what you need to gain recognition that goes beyond the world of sport. I only won one Grand Slam, but I’m very happy that it was this particular one. That fact that French wins at Roland-Garros are also so rare highlights it a little more – more than in my day, to a certain extent! This is why I was happy when Mary won Roland-Garros. In a certain sense, it took some of the burden off me as I was no longer "the last Frenchwoman to win Roland-Garros." It was time for someone to take over from me... And I hope that Mary won’t have to wait as long for someone to do the same for her.

Presenting the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen to Mary Pierce in 2000. Three years earlier, they had won the Fed Cup together – Pierce as a player, Dürr as co-captain alongside Yannick Noah.

Françoise Dürr's record at Roland-Garros...

Singles: 1 title (1967), 2 semi-finals (1972, 1973) and 3 quarter-finals (1965, 1966, 1971)
Doubles: 5 titles (1967 with Gail Sherriff, 1968 with Ann Jones, 1969 with Ann Jones, 1970 with Gail Sherriff, 1971 with Gail Sherriff).
Mixed doubles: 3 titles (1968, 1971 and 1973 with Jean-Claude Barclay)
Juniors: 1 title (1960).

Other tournaments

Singles: semi-finalist at the US Open in 1967 and Wimbledon in 1970.
Doubles: US Open champion in 1969 (with Darlene Hard) and 1972 (with Betty Stöve).
Mixed doubles: Wimbledon champion in 1976 (with Tony Roche)
Co-captain, alongside Yannick Noah, of the French national team who won the 1997 Fed Cup.

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