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Tennis history at the French Open

The sport started out as a French handball game called jeu de paume (“game of the palm”). Now, tennis is played the world over and watched avidly by millions.

Tournaments abound, but if you know anything about the sport, you know which events to watch out for. The Roland-Garros, popularly known as the French Open, is one of the most eagerly awaited ones.

The tournament began in 1891 and is played over two weeks at the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris, France. It’s held on a clay court—the only one to do so out of the four Grand Slams—resulting in a slow-playing surface. Because of that, as well as the seven rounds it plays out for a championship and best-of-five-set men’s singles, many consider it one of the most physically challenging tournaments in the world of tennis.

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Every year, the Roland-Garros is eagerly anticipated. This year is no different. In the men’s singles category, all eyes are on tennis legend Rafael Nadal as fans expect another win from the King of Clay. The women’s singles category is no less exciting. Following her historic victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S Open Final, and Petra Kvitová in the 2019 Australian Open Final, the tennis world is waiting with bated breath to see if the young Naomi Osaka can grab another Grand Slam victory. 

With over a hundred years of history, the tournament has had more than a few notable games. 

Federer vs. Nadal, 2005

In the first meeting of the two legends on a clay court—and on Nadal’s 19th birthday, to boot—the resulting game was one of the most riveting. In a battle for a place in the finals, Federer was riding the wave of an unstoppable year, but it all came to a halt when he faced the young Nadal on the clay. After defeating Federer, Nadal went on to win his first Grand Slam.

Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain stand side by side as they pose for photos prior to their semi-final match during the eleventh day of the French Open on June 2, 2005. / Photo credit: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Evert vs. Navratilova, 1985

Entering the match with a personal score of 33–31 and having won 15 out of their last 16 meetings, Navratilova was hell-bent on winning the 1985 French Open finals against longtime rival Chris Evert. The pair had significantly contrasting play styles, which made for one of the most entertaining matches in the history of the Roland-Garros. In the end, 30-year-old Evert claimed victory over Navratilova and reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking.

John McEnroe vs. Ivan Lendl, 1984

Known as the “bad boy” of tennis, McEnroe was dominating in 1984. With 13 singles titles and only three losses out of 85 matches that year, Big Mac was on fire—until he came to the Roland-Garros.  The French Open, having a reputation for being unkind to American male singles, saw John McEnroe face 24-year-old Ivan Lendl. McEnroe won the first two sets in under an hour, causing fans to believe it would be a quick match. But Lendl, who had yet to win a major tournament, turned it around in the third set when McEnroe lost his focus due to a temper fit involving a cameraman. Lendl would eventually win the fourth set as well, resulting in a heated fifth set. The match lasted for over four hours, but saw Lendl victorious in the last set, 5–7.

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Graf vs. Hingis, 1999

”This is, by far, the biggest, the most unexpected win I’ve ever had,” Graf said in an interview with the New York Times. “It was one of the craziest matches ever; it had everything.”

Steffi Graf of Germany celebrates victory with the trophy after the 1999 French Open Final match against Martina Hingis of Switzerland played at Roland-Garros in Paris, France. The match finished with Graf clinching the title after a dramatic comeback. / Photo credit: Al Bello/Allsport

Martina Hingis at the time was ranked no. 1 in the world: a title she held for an impressive 209 weeks. She had been winning tournaments since she was 15 and held a calendar year slam in doubles. So, when she entered the 1999 French Open finals, the 18-year-old was not expecting to lose to the 30-year-old Graf.

Her arrogance would become her downfall. After a failed attempt to overrule the umpire, she saw the French audience turn on her. They cheered for Graf just as much as they jeered for Hingis, turning the tide as much as an audience could during a match. The support from the crowd gave Graf the boost she needed to claim victory, which would earn her a spectacular exit from the French Open.

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