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Filip Dewulf: "Roland-Garros 1997 was where I made a name for myself"

By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Sunday 21 May 2017
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He is the only man to have won eight matches in one French Open. It was at the incredible 1997 tournament, which brought Gustavo Kuerten to such public prominence, but the other story that year was Filip Dewulf, who earned his place in the legend of Roland-Garros by making it through qualifying all the way to the semi-finals. This was an amazing exploit for someone who came to Paris ranked No.122 in the world, and despite being somewhat overtaken by events, he maintained a very Belgian sense of modesty, while his fellow countrymen were busy feting his exploits at what they consider to be the world’s most important tennis tournament. 20 years on, he still seems to be shaking his head in disbelief when he tells his story.

Before Roland-Garros 1997

"In Belgium, Roland-Garros is 'our' Grand Slam in a way. It’s the most important tournament for us, the one that is easiest to travel to, and where historically every match has always been shown on television. As a child, I remember watching the duels between Lendl, McEnroe and Wilander with my cousins. Roland-Garros is part of our culture... and it needed all of that historical significance for my headmistress to sign a release form for me in 1989 so that I could play the junior tournament, which came right in the middle of my exams! That was my very first experience of Roland – lots of negotiations at school, only for the tournament to last 45 minutes for me. That’s all the time it took to lose 6-1, 6-0 to Stéphane Huet in a terrible match! Not much of a first experience, therefore, but fortunately I pretty much made up for it afterwards."

"I played qualifying several times without managing to get through, and then the main draw in 1996, where I lost to Jonas Bjorkman after another disappointing match, or at least what I remember of it – I think I must have wiped it from my memory! I remember driving up from Belgium one of those years and finding myself stuck by the side of the road with a flat tyre (he waves his hands as if to flag down a passing driver), which was a bit of a problem since I was meant to be playing qualies. I manged to get to a garage and arrived at Roland-Garros just in time for the warm-up! It’s a good story though, looking back on it now (he exhales)."

"I was always a player with highs and (very low) lows. My whole career was a roller-coaster ride. Before Roland-Garros 1997, I was in a low. I hadn’t been winning matches for a while, and I’d also got injured in the Davis Cup and had missed virtually all of the clay season. I came to qualies more in hope than expectation, quite clearly. If it hadn’t been Roland, I might not have gone..."

Roland-Garros 1997

"I didn’t play well in qualifying. Awkward matches, a poor level of play, but I got past Stefano Pescosolido, Cyril Buscaglione – dropping a set to the world No.300, mind you – and Julien Chauvin, and it was that last match that I remember the most. It was really tense. Both of us knew that this was our chance to make it through to the main draw, which represented quite a bit of money for a couple of guys like us who were outside the top 100. It was another error-strewn match that I managed to win, so I was in the tournament proper. That was more than I was expecting when I arrived, so it was already a success as far as I was concerned."

"I played against an Italian, Cristiano Caratti, in the main draw. It was a pretty decent draw – he wasn’t a clay specialist and his game suited me. Hey, you need a little bit of luck along the way! I won pretty easily, and I was off and running. I felt better, lighter, I was gaining in confidence … I was an outsider with nothing to lose who was enjoying the ride. And as always, there were plenty of Belgians in the stadium. They really did support you – on the outside courts, when they are just two metres away from you, it gives you a real lift. And Belgians fans really are something – I reckon they’re the best in the world. You can’t fail to find a court that a Belgian is playing on – just follow the crowds and the noise in the stands! In the second round, I beat Fernando Meligeni in five sets. That was such a tough match physically – I had cramps by the end, but he was struggling as well ! At this point though, my game was getting to a higher plane. I remember a set point where I managed a backspin volley low down that I am still proud of to this day. That was the moment when I started to have some fun."

"The highlight of the three weeks was the third round against Albert Portas, who was an absolute beast physically and who had just beaten Carlos Moya. That day, a coachload from my club in Diest had come to Roland-Garros. When they had bought their tickets, there was no way of knowing that I would still be in the running... and here I was, so they took over the court where I was playing, which was No.10 at the time and is now No.7. It was packed with Belgians, lots of whom I knew, and they created such an atmosphere. They were making so much noise that the people in the back rows in Centre Court were turning around to follow our match from the top of the stands! It was wonderful. And it was a long match as well, that I won 8-6 in the fifth set, with the crowd whipped up to a frenzy. When you analyse it all – the level of play, what was at stake, the suspense and the atmosphere – that was maybe the match of my life."

Dewulf – Portas, Roland-Garros 1997 round of 32

"Up until that point, I had been playing against guys more or less on the same level as me, where neither of us was a stand-out favourite. But in the Round of 16, I was very much the underdog against Alex Corretja, who was in the top 10 and had just won Rome… I knew Corretja well. I more or less grew up with him, I’d come across him regularly on the satellite circuits in Spain. But that day, there was a storm coming in and it was really windy at Roland-Garros, so conditions were a leveller. He was a little more nervous that I was, and after I lost the first set, I just decided to go for it. I said to myself: 'Come one, see what you can do, you’re in the last 16 at Roland Garros, you’ve had a great tournament, beyond your wildest dreams, so you might as well go out with a bang than a whimper’. And it worked. Suddenly every shot started to go in, and I won. It was a real surprise for me."

"The deeper you get into a Grand Slam tournament, the more it’s psychological. There aren’t many players left standing, but those that are – they are the ones with good games and the mental strength to go with it"

"Tennis fever in Belgium really started from that match onwards. The media began to pay a lot more attention to me, asking me for interviews… I was in a little hotel for qualies, obviously, and I stayed there afterwards. To begin with, the owners were a little bit annoyed because I couldn’t give them a departure date. Every day, I told them: 'If I lose, I’ll be off straight away, but if I win, I’ll stay!' Which obviously didn’t suit them, as they wanted to rent out my room. But once we got into the second week, by which time Belgians had taken all their other rooms and the media were camped outside the hotel, they were over the moon! My girlfriend, my parents and my friends told me that they too were being hounded by the media who were looking for stories. They told me: 'You should see it, the whole village is hanging on your every shot!' That’s when it really started to sink home to me …"

Dewulf – Corretja, Roland-Garros 1997 round of 16

"Things went up another level again with my quarter-final against Magnus Norman. I could see how big things were getting, in what was expected of me both off-court and on-court. A Grand Slam semi-final was at stake between two absolute novices at this stage of the competition – he was No.70, I was No.120. So it was the chance of a lifetime. The deeper you get into a Grand Slam tournament, the more it’s psychological. There aren’t many players left standing, but those that are – they are the ones with good games and the mental strength to go with it. The tension mounts. Both of us felt it, and our match wasn’t a great one, not as good as the three I’d had before that. But I got through in four sets. It was wonderful… and at the same time, it was the beginning of the end."

"I was beginning to feel tired. Not physically, even if the semi was going to be my eighth match, but mentally. All the media hype got even bigger, and it just became a circus… including in my head. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I found out how much those close to me were being affected by it. My parents were getting phone calls from people they barely knew, asking them for tickets for the French; my girlfriend was a primary school teacher, and she couldn’t even get to school in the morning without being bothered... On the morning of my semi, a newspaper from Limburg even took her to Roland-Garros in a helicopter in exchange for being able to follow her around all day!"

Dewulf – Norman, Roland-Garros 1997 quarter-finals

"I didn’t manage to clear my head of all that. It was the first time that I’d experienced anything like this, not even when I’d won the tournament in Vienna two years earlier. I’m not saying that without all this, I would have won my semi-final against Gustavo Kuerten – he went on to prove that he was an incredible player, whereas I remained someone whose career went up and down – but I did have a bad match. And yet I was ahead in the fourth-set tie-breaker… So who knows? Maybe if I had been a little clearer and fresher in my head… perhaps, perhaps I could have made it through to the final. Anyway…"

When I look at the different ways that "Guga" and I handled it all, it’s day and night"

"Kuerten looked really relaxed… and he was. He was a cool guy, never let things get to him or be worried by the magnitude of what was happening to him. He stayed just the way he was and remained relaxed, despite the stakes and the pressure that were both building up. He was born to be in the spotlight, on the podium… He does it well, and looks to the manner born. Even today, when he presents the trophy to the winners at Roland-Garros. He seems detached from it all, and that helped him ignore the tension at the end of tournaments. When I look at the different ways that he and I handled it all, it’s day and night. He played really well, at his own pace – which was a blistering one – and it was difficult to get out of that rhythm. And he carried on playing that way at the business end of tournaments, despite the stakes. On the contrary – the public was on his side, he immediately got a good following and he knew how to use that energy to carry him along. It may have been a surprise at the time when he won in 1997, but when you see what came afterwards… he demonstrated that he was a true champion on clay. How many people have won Roland-Garros three times?"

Kuerten – Dewulf, Roland-Garros 1997 semi-finals

"I never really thought about the title. That might sound like a cliché, but I took it one match at a time. It was all so unexpected - I didn’t even have enough clothes to finish the tournament! I’d brought four shirts with me, thinking that that would be enough for the tournament, So at the end of the day, I had nothing to wear once I got through the first round of the main draw. I went through the rest of the tournament using up my Wimbledon gear, that my sponsor had already sent me. That’s why I must have been the only guy at the tournament to play in an all-white shirt at the French! (laughs)

"In the end, I was happy that it was finally all over. I didn’t enjoy all of the sideshow aspect of it. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, and it all got too much. And because of that, I didn’t really enjoy it towards the end. It was better the year after, when I knew what to expect a little more. In 1997, everything took me by surprise, it all hit me full on – both the good and the bad."

"I only found out later that by making the semi-final, I had equalled the best ever result for a player who had come through qualifying at a Grand Slam. I was very proud. I don’t have many records, so to see myself in the Roland-Garros record book alongside the great John McEnroe across all Grand Slams… I think that it would be even harder to achieve nowadays, because the competition is greater than it was in my day. In the qualies in particular."

Roland-Garros 1997 campaign (World No.122)

Qualies - first round : defeated Stefano Pescosolido (ITA) 6/4 6/4
Qualies - second round : defeated Cyril Buscaglione (FRA) 4/6 6/2 6/3
Qualies - third round : defeated Julien Chauvin (FRA) 6/3 6/4
Round of 128 : defeated Cristiano Caratti (ITA) 6/3 6/3 6/1
Round of 64 : defeated Fernando Meligeni (BRA) 6/4 6/2 3/6 1/6 6/3
Round of 32 : defeated Albert Portas (ESP) 6/3 7/6 4/6 6/7 8/6
Round of 16 : defeated Alex Corretja (ESP, 8th seed) 5/7 6/1 6/4 7/5
Quarter-finals : defeated Magnus Norman (SWE) 6/2 6/7 6/4 6/3
Semi-finales : lost against Gustavo Kuerten (BRA) 6/1 3/6 6/1 7/6

After-Roland-Garros 1997

"In 1998, I knew what to expect, and I handled everything that goes on around a Grand Slam tournament far better, meaning that I enjoyed my run a lot more. It was nice to be the guy who followed up his big performance from the year before. I felt like I was playing well. Against Thomas Enqvist in the third round, I must have played the best match of my life in pure tennis terms! I was in the zone. And then there was my good friend Hicham Arazi who was matching what I was doing in the draw."

"I got to the quarters without losing a set, so not like the year before. But I didn’t play as well against Alex Corretja, and he played a lot better. He got his revenge for the year before, as simple as that. But it’s a shame, as in 1998, I felt more settled than I did the year before and could have gone on to something big."

"So in that sense, 1998 was more enjoyable for me. I had things more under control. Afterwards, looking back on it, 1997 was where I made a name for myself. People know me for that semi-final and the record for a qualifier.... it’s more special than the quarter-final the year after. But hey, I’m happy with both – after all, they’re the only Grand Slam quarter-finals that I ever made (laughs)!"

Corretja - Dewulf, RG98 quarterfinals

"I felt good at Roland-Garros. After the match against Corretja in 1997, I jokingly said that I liked the lines here. They were well painted, very white and very visible, and they were good targets that I liked to aim for! On a more serious note, I liked the way Roland-Garros was a combination of things – clay, but a little quicker than usual, with the ball coming on well, that was nice to slide on. It felt like what we knew back home. In Belgium, the weather is so bad that we only play outdoors four months a year, but that means that a whole host of clubs have indoor clay courts, so that’s what we were brought up on."

"Just after that second quarter-final at Roland-Garros, I got my first big injury, in the summer of 1998. I was out for eight months and went down to 400th in the world, went through qualifying again at Roland where I lost to Eric Prodon, got back up to around No.120… and then hurt my knee again. That was more or less the end of my career. Physically I wasn’t up to it anymore, and I stopped wanting it mentally. I quit at 29, which is quite early, but hey... I wasn’t a big fan of the tennis circuit in general."

"I’ve maintained a foot in both camps as a journalist. It was a logical choice for me. I like writing, I like to give my opinion and I think that I can understand a tennis match pretty well, so… Once I finished my career though, I never played tennis again. Ever. I just don’t feel like it. I absolutely love football and while I would happily get up in the middle of the night to play a match, I wouldn’t do that for tennis. I had the talent to play tennis and I am happy that I did it, to have seen where it could take me, but it was never a passion. I prefer team sports. It’s easier for me to give it my all for the sake of other people, to try to achieve a common goal. And that’s probably why I loved the Davis Cup so much."

"Now it’s 20 years on, and in Belgium, older generations see me as a former player, while younger people think of me as a journalist. But lots of people still talk to me about that semi in Paris, which is still the best result at a Grand Slam of any man from our country. I hope that David (Goffin) will one day go further than I did."

Record at Roland-Garros

Singles: semi-finalist in 1997, quarter-finalist in 1998. In 1997, he achieved the best result of any player to have come through qualifying and into the main draw of a Grand Slam, alongside John McEnroe (Wimbledon 1977) and Vladimir Voltchkov (Wimbledon 2000).

Elsewhere

Two ATP titles in singles: Vienna in 1995 and Kitzbühel in 1997. One ATP title in doubles: Umag in 1993. World number 39 in 1997.

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