Nine Americans who conquered Paris

5/19/2010 - Tennis

It doesn't take a skilled detective to know that Americans have had less success at Roland Garros than at any of the other Grand Slams. Not since 2002, when Serena Williams beat her sister Venus in the final, has an American won the French Open singles title. And on the men's side, it has been more than a decade since Andre Agassi's life-changing run of 1999.

But the Americans who have conquered Roland Garros constitute a sturdy crew, a rugged group of competitors who were able to go the distance in Paris during the Open era. Here are snapshots of each:


1968: Nancy Richey

Amid excessive political strife -- student protests and riots, inspiring the Rolling Stones song "Street Fighting Man" -- a cool-as-a-cucumber Texan did what she had done her whole tennis life: Nancy Richey hunkered down and drove one deep groundstroke after another. Three of her last four matches went three sets, including a victory in the semis over Billie Jean King and an intriguing win in the final over two-time champion, crafty left-hander Ann Jones. Down a set and 4-1 in the final, Richey likely drew on words of advice handed down to her by her father and coach, George: "If there's adversity, then flip it on its side." With unwavering concentration, Richey rallied to win 12 of the next 14 games.

1972: Billie Jean King

In the early '70s, no one was going to stop Billie Jean King from accomplishing everything she had ever dreamed of: wins, rewards, opportunity. Although by this point she had thrown herself into making the fledgling Virginia Slims pro tour work -- a week-to-week circuit played in the U.S. -- King also valued the chance to win Roland Garros at last. For all the attention she generated outside the lines, what is often overlooked is that King was not just a great champion inside the lines but a supreme tactician. Mixing up spins and paces, attacking and patience, King romped through Roland Garros without losing a set -- along the way beating tricky rival Virginia Wade and, in the finals, defending champion Evonne Goolagong.

1974-75, '79-80, '83, '85-86: Chris Evert

And so commenced a royal reign. There has likely never been a better fit between player and surface than Chris Evert and clay. Raised on the gritty stuff by her father and coach, Jimmy, Evert was steady, accurate and able to concentrate through one lengthy rally after another with unsurpassed grace and intensity. Beginning in 1973, she commenced a 125-match clay-court winning streak. At Roland Garros, Evert was virtually untouchable, winning the title in her teens, 20s and 30s. And better yet, through all these years, she subtly enhanced her game. Early on, Evert was a steady waif. Later came the solid baseliner. But by her 30s, an increased fitness regimen had enhanced both the speed of Evert's feet and the heft of her ball, in the process earning her two of the most satisfying wins of her career: a pair of three-setters over Martina Navratilova in the '85 and '86 finals.

1982 & '84: Martina Navratilova

Though of course not American by birth, Navratilova had become a U.S. citizen by the summer of '81. And although she had been raised on clay in Czechoslovakia -- she reached the '75 French Open final as a Czech -- it wasn't until that momentous summer of '81 that she began putting the pieces in place that would make her a champion for all surfaces. Key step No. 1: Working with basketball great Nancy Lieberman to improve her fitness and make her more patient for the longer rallies required on clay. Key step No. 2: Revamping her strokes under the guidance of Renee Richards, including the addition of a topspin backhand. Her game boosted by increased discipline and sharper craftsmanship, Navratilova played superbly to capture her first French title in '82 -- and played even better tennis to obliterate Evert 6-3, 6-1 in the '84 final.

2001: Jennifer Capriati

She had first made her mark at Roland Garros in 1990, becoming the youngest player ever, at 14, to reach a Grand Slam singles semis. Back then, Jennifer Capriati was a fearless ingénue, striking balls with impunity. But then came the years of exile -- Capriati an outcast, burnt out by tennis, skipping Roland Garros four times in the '90s. Even in 2000, she had lost in the first round. But in 2001, off the heels of taking her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, Capriati took on a new role at Roland Garros: champion. She had always had the power. This time Capriati also showed newfound pride and poise. Even in the final, after dropping the first set to Kim Clijsters, Capriati remained resolute, leveling the match and then fighting brilliantly to win an epic third, 12-10. As America's tenacious sweetheart said, "I feel as I've been reincarnated."

2002: Serena Williams

Faced with the unfamiliar, some believe it's best to adjust. Serena Williams sees it differently: Don't adjust. Dominate. At the end of 2001, weeks after being bested by her sister in the U.S. Open final, Serena vowed that 2002 would be her time to step up. Roland Garros marked the start. In convincing fashion, Williams imposed herself on the clay with increased power and her distinctive brand of confidence. Straight-set wins over fellow American Chanda Rubin and three-time French Open champion Monica Seles revealed how committed she was to taking the crown in Paris. Even more revealing was a dramatic comeback in the semis versus Jennifer Capriati, as Williams emerged the winner 3-6, 7-6, 6-2. In the final, a familiar face in sister Venus awaited her. This time Serena was ready, winning the match 7-5, 6-3 -- and going on to take the next three Slams to complete the infamous "Serena Slam" and become one of only nine women to have earned all four.


1989: Michael Chang

He was only 17, playing in just his second French Open. It had been 34 years since an American man, Tony Trabert, had last won at Roland Garros. Even Chang's coach at the time, Jose Higueras, thought he was a few years away from serious contention in Paris. But to Chang, youthful ignorance was a valuable tool. Never was his tenacity more apparent than in the fourth round when he was down two sets to love against top seed Ivan Lendl. Grinding out points in every way possible -- including the only underhanded serve of his entire career -- Chang fought his way through cramps to take down tennis' Goliath. That week, he would also draw strength from student protests in his ancestral homeland, China. In what proved a perfect storm of player, time and performance, Chang went on to rally from down two sets to one to beat Stefan Edberg in the final -- and earn what proved a career-defining win both for himself and an entire generation. As Jim Courier said, "Michael kicked down the door."

1991-92: Jim Courier

He had been a fine junior -- losing the '87 Kalamazoo final to Chang -- but much of Jim Courier's early career went unnoticed. Be it Chang in juniors, Andre Agassi at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy or his one-time doubles partner, the liquid-smooth Pete Sampras, Courier spent a lot of time in the shadow of others. But by 1991, he'd stepped out, playing superbly to capture titles at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. At Roland Garros that year, he fought tenaciously to take down the favored Agassi in a rough-and-tumble five-set final. Courier arrived for his title defense ranked No. 1 in the world -- and comfortably marched to an encore, bulldozing opponents with fierce groundstrokes, forceful serving and, best of all, supreme physical and mental fitness. By '92, Courier had mastered not just the language of clay but also the language of his hosts, that year giving his acceptance speech in French.

1999: Andre Agassi

Call it a fairy tale. Twice Agassi had been upset in the finals. Other years, he had barely competed. Even in '99, an injury made Agassi think long and hard about skipping Roland Garros. An impassioned plea from his coach, Brad Gilbert, convinced him it was worth a go. Even then, there were dragons to be slain: tough comebacks versus Arnaud Clement and Carlos Moya. In the final, Russian Andrei Medvedev was in command, taking the first two sets as Agassi looked more like a junior. But then a rain delay, sharp advice from Gilbert and, most of all, Agassi's own will, kicked in. He began swinging freely as only he could. Medvedev began to wither. And at last, more than a decade after he had burst on the scene as a long-haired, neon-wearing teen from Las Vegas, Andre Agassi stepped into tennis manhood at the age of 29. He would go on to take another four Grand Slam titles. But it started in Paris -- as did his romance with that year's women's champ, Steffi Graf.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.