Each week, Baseline will take a look at a player who has thrived at one of the stops on the ATP and WTA tours during their career. (All photos: Getty Images)
From winning her first Grand Slam title as a teenager destined for greatness to capturing the last of her stellar career as she neared the end of her playing days, Steffi Graf clearly found the French Open much to her liking.
In all, the German won six singles titles at Roland Garros, only trailing Chris Evert on the all-time list among women champions. The first of those victories came back in 1987, at a time when Graf could do no wrong on the court. The teenager started her year perfectly, winning six tournaments in a row, and her roll continued through Paris, where she eked out a three-set win against Martina Navratilova in the final.
Navratilova and Chris Evert had been keeping Graf at bay at the onset of her career, but couldn’t hold her back much longer. After she started off the 1988 season with a title at the Australian Open, Graf completed the second leg of her calendar-year Golden Slam in Paris, thrashing the young Russian Natasha Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0, in the final.
After winning the 1989 Australian Open, it seemed like Graf might never lose a Grand Slam match again, but in the final of the French Open that year, she was surprisingly upset by the seventh seed, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who rallied from the brink to stop Graf’s major winning streak.
Over the next three years, teenagers continued to keep Graf out of the winner’s circle in Paris, as Monica Seles stopped her in the final in 1990 and ’92, and Sanchez-Vicario routed her in the ’91 semifinals.
With Seles out of the 1993 tournament due to the tragic accident that befell her in the spring, Graf was the clear favorite for the title that year and she delivered, topping Mary Joe Fernandez in three sets in the final. Falling in the semifinals a year later, Graf got back on track in 1995 and ’96, defeating Sanchez-Vicario in both finals.
The ’96 victory was one of three major championships Graf won that year, but with a new wave of challengers coming down the pipeline, she was denied another Grand Slam title for three years as it seemed the game was passing her by.
When she reached Paris in 1999, Graf was seeded sixth and got through her first four matches without dropping a set. In the quarterfinals, she faced the second seed, Lindsey Davenport, and topped the American in three sets to reach her first major semifinal in nearly three years. Facing her longtime rival Monica Seles in the semifinals, Graf defeated the third seed in another three-setter to reach the final against the world No. 1, Martina Hingis.
Having been denied at the final stage in 1997—the only major match she lost that year—the Swiss teen was determined to complete the career Grand Slam. She took the opening set and had her chances in the second to put herself in prime position to win the title. With the crowd firmly behind her and Hingis going off the mark, though, Graf rallied to win in three sets and extend her overall Grand Slam singles title mark to 22.
Afterward, she announced that it was the last time she would play the French Open as she closed her career at the tournament on the ultimate high note.