One day, one epic match: Safin - Agassi (1st round 1998)

 - Simon Cambers

Relive the match between Marat Safin and Andre Agassi at the 1st round of Roland-Garros 1998.

Safin VS Agassi during first round at Roland-Garros 1998 invites you to experience the 2020 tournament on the original dates by looking back at some of the most memorable matches from the past, round by round. Today, Sunday 24 May, we go back to the arrival on the major scene of Marat Safin, the Russian who would go on to win two Grand Slam titles, become the world No 1 and win the Davis Cup twice for Russia, as he took out Andre Agassi in a five-set thriller.

The context

This was Agassi’s 10th visit to Roland-Garros while for Safin it was his first, having won through qualifying to reach the main draw of a slam for the first time. In 1998, Agassi was well on his way back from obscurity. Ranked as low as No 141 in late 1997 and still outside the top 100 at the end of that year, the American had rededicated himself to the sport and was already back inside the top 20 (and heading all the way back to the very top), by the time he arrived in Paris.

Having reached the final in Munich in his most recent event, Agassi might have fancied his chances of winning the one Grand Slam title to elude him, while for Safin, facing a legend of the sport like Agassi was a big honour, and, as it turned out, a big opportunity.

Marat Safin during his first round against Agassi at Roland-Garros 1998©FFT

The Match

On a packed Court Suzanne Lenglen, Agassi edged a tight first set but Safin was far from intimidated, hammering return winners from way behind the baseline and matching the American shot for shot. And a shoulder injury that had cropped up in the middle of the set was not a good omen for Agassi.

At 6ft 4in, Safin didn’t look like an 18-year-old; instead, he was already a well-developed man and he also had a liking for clay, having spent much of his teenage life training in Valencia. His movement, too, was a revelation, while his liking for the big occasion was obvious as he pinched the second set and then ripped through the third.

Agassi, the runner-up in 1990 and 1991, played a superb opening game of the fourth set, breaking serve thanks to a stunning forehand pass and when he held the advantage to level the match at two sets apiece, it seemed likely he would go on to win.

But as Agassi tired, Safin broke in the opening game of the fifth and raced to a 4-0 lead. Though nerves hit as he tried to close it out, he held on and clinched victory when the American could only net a forehand at full stretch.

What they said

Something is obviously inflamed," Agassi said, according to the Washington Post, whose headline read simply: In Paris, Au Revoir to Agassi. "Anything above my shoulder I started struggling with. I was letting those balls drop, trying to move him left, right, left, right. I just didn't close out the points."

The New York Times noted Agassi’s shoulder issue but also wondered aloud if Agassi would ever have another opportunity to win the title.

Match stats

It was the first time Agassi had ever lost in the first round at Roland-Garros. Not helped by his sore shoulder, he made 82 unforced errors.

What happened next ?

Safin followed up his famous win with another, over the defending champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, again in five sets and then took out Daniel Vacek of the Czech Republic before eventually bowing out in the last 16 to Frenchman Cedric Pioline, but not before he again went five sets.

After recovering from his shoulder injury, Agassi continued his resurgence to end the year ranked No 6. But it was at Roland-Garros the following summer that he enjoyed perhaps his finest moment, coming from two sets down to beat Andrei Medvedev of Russia in the final and complete a full set of Grand Slam titles.

By the end of Wimbledon that year, where he reached the final, he was back to world No 1 and he went on to add the US Open title a couple of months later before picking up the first of three Australian Open titles in 2000.

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