Roland Garros Royalty: Steffi Graf, six-time French Open champion
After winning 22 Grand Slams in her career, only beaten by Margaret Court and Serena Williams, Steffi Graf is one of the greatest female players of all time and a French Open legend.
Not only did Graf win 22 Majors, she was also ranked as the best female player for a record 377 consecutive weeks, and is still the only player to achieve the ‘Golden Slam’ by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and Olympic gold in the same year.
As well as winning at least four Majors on each surface and having the most success at Wimbledon with seven titles, Graf’s performances at the French Open have propelled her into our ‘Tennishead Roland Garros Royalty’ roster.
First French Open title in 1987
The world of women’s tennis finally began to shift in the spring of 1987 at the French Open.
Between 1982 and 1986, dominant duo Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had won 18 of 19 Grand Slam titles. The top seed at the event was Navratilova, whilst the fading Evert took the number three spot.
Sandwiched between the pair was 17-year-old Steffi Graf, who possessed an unprecedented 32-0 record for the season and was formidable in the early rounds, conceding just five games in her first three matches.
Of the top three, only Navratilova lost a set in the first four rounds. All three women sailed past their quarter-final opponents to set up a rare Navratilova-Evert semi-final. Their previous 10 Grand Slam meetings had all been in finals, dating back to the US Open in 1981.
Navratilova thrashed Evert 6-2, 6-2, while Graf managed to hold off the tricky Gabriela Sabatini in three sets, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, to reach the final.
In the final, the German took the first 6-4 before Navratilova inflicted the same punishment in the second. In the decider, Graf outlasted Navratilova 8-6 in the third set to win what went on to be her first of several Grand Slam titles on Parisian soil.
34-minute final in 1988
Graf began the year in dominant fashion, beating Chris Evert 6-1 7-6 to lift her first Australian Open title without losing a set during the entire tournament and for the loss of just 29 games. However, it was her remarkable performance at the French Open which dominated the front pages.
Graf was in destructive mode in Paris, reaching the final by winning four ‘love’ sets in her six matches.
Her opponent, 17-year-old Natasha Zvereva, was enjoying a fairytale run after accounting for second seed Navratilova and Helena Sukova, though things unravelled very quickly in the final.
The German star conceded just 13 points in the match and took both sets to love, thrashing the Soviet player. The official match time was 34 minutes, although the players only spent 32 minutes on court, with a rain break dividing the match into two periods of play.
Regardless, the match is still the shortest and most one-sided Grand Slam final ever and the only ‘double bagel’ in a Major final since 1911.
“I’m very sorry it was so fast,” Graf told the Roland Garros crowd.
An emotional Zvereva turned down an on-court interview, but let out her emotions during the press conference.
“I wasn’t in the match. It was just a bad game, bad play,” said the Soviet.
Graf’s Grand Slam dominance in 1988 did not end there. The German recovered from a 7-5 2-0 deficit to Navratilova to take the Wimbledon crown before ousting Sabatini in a three-set final to win the US Open.
Graf then defeated Sabatini again in the Olympics gold-medal match to achieve what the press dubbed as the unprecedented ‘Golden Slam’ – a feat that no other player has replicated.
Reasserting her dominance in 1993
Between the years of 1990 and 1993, Graf played second fiddle to Monica Seles who took the women’s game by storm. Seles had won nine Grand Slams in that period and three consecutive French Open titles, two of which she defeated Graf in the final.
However, following the shocking stabbing incident which occurred in Hamburg, Seles was unable to return to competitive tennis for over two years, which, in turn, helped Graf return to the very top, winning 65 of 67 matches.
After Seles had dominated the clay events, Graf showed that she was still a big shot on the surface, winning her first French Open title since 1988 and returning to World No 1 for the first time in almost two years.
Graf took the Roland Garros title with a three-set victory over Mary Joe Fernandez, who failed to convert either of her two break points to take a double break lead in the decider.
Back-to-back French Open titles in 1995 and 1996
After a strained calf muscle forced her to withdraw from the Australian Open in 1995, Graf won four WTA titles to put herself in the perfect place for a fourth French Open trophy.
The World No 1 defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 to extend her unbeaten record to 25-0.
The German went on to win Wimbledon by beating the Spaniard in the final for a second consecutive Slam before her arch rival Monica Seles made her long awaited return at the US Open.
Seles and Graf met in the final which the German took in three sets.
The following year followed an almost identical pattern for Graf, who once again missed the Australian Open before defending all three Grand Slam titles.
In an immensely close French Open final, Graf overcame Sánchez Vicario by taking the deciding set 10-8.
The German looked set to wrap up the match in straight sets having led the second set tiebreak 4-1, only to lose six points in a row.
Twice in the third set the Spaniard served for the championship, though was broken each time by her nemesis. The final made the history books as the longest French Open women’s singles final in history, both in terms of time (3 hours and 4 minutes) and the number of games played (40).
Sixth and final French Open title in 1999
The last few years of Graf’s career were troubled with back and knee injuries, though the German did enjoy one last hurrah at the French Open.
After a successful Roland Garros campaign, Graf reached her first Grand Slam final in three years and recovered from a set and a break down in the second set to defeat the top ranked Martina Hingis in three sets.
The German became the first ever player in the open era to overcome the first, second, and third ranked players in the same Grand Slam tournament after she also ousted Davenport and Monica Seles in Paris.
After the final, Graf announced it would be her final French Open, fuelling speculation about her retirement.
On 13 August 1999, just over a month after her straight-sets defeat to Davenport in the Wimbledon final, Graf announced her retirement from the women’s tour at age 30.
“I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis. I feel I have nothing left to accomplish. The weeks following Wimbledon weren’t easy for me. I was not having fun anymore”, said Graf.
“After Wimbledon, for the first time in my career, I didn’t feel like going to a tournament. My motivation wasn’t what it was in the past.”
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