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Inside the Line...

Inside the Lines: Coming Up Short at Roland-Garros

Andy Murray prepares to hit a backhand.

Hoisting the Coupe de Mousquetaires is a rare accomplishment among the men these past two decades as Rafael Nadal has laid claim to the beautiful trophy an incredible 14 times. Only Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic have managed to win the title since Rafa’s first victory there in 2005.

As I sit down to write this article, we are quickly approaching the end of another exciting clay court season and the conclusion of Roland-Garros. One player will emerge as champion while another 127 participants in the men’s draw will leave Paris disappointed.

This week on Inside the Lines however, I want to focus on the men who have never been able to claim the French Open title. There have been some very talented tennis players who have won elsewhere on clay and those who have hoisted other Major titles, but for one reason or another failed to do so in Paris. Here are some of the ones that stand out to me in recent times.

Before the Big Three in men’s tennis, Pete Sampras reigned supreme in terms of the overall Grand Slam title haul with 14 major championships to his name: seven Wimbledon titles, five at the US Open and two at the Aussie Open. But never did Pistol Pete triumph in Paris. His booming serve, crisp volleys (both of those skills usually performed in succession) and his big forehand just didn’t translate on clay as they did on hard courts and grass.

His best showing at Roland-Garros was a semifinalist appearance in 1996 where he fell to eventual champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Sampras did win some clay court tournaments as well as the Davis Cup on clay in 1995 against Russia, but it just never clicked for him in the same way in Paris.

Another great player I grew up watching, and one who had a decent rivalry going with Sampras as well, was Germany’s Boris Becker. His three consecutive Wimbledon finals against Stefan Edberg from 1988-1990 were some of my fondest memories of watching tennis as a kid and he ended his successful playing career with a total of six major titles.

None of those came at the French Open however and in fact, while Becker won 49 career titles before he hung up his racquet, none of them were ever captured on clay. Boom Boom did come close to winning on the surface and made clay court finals six times including late in his career in Gstaad in 1998. His best achievement on the clay in Paris was making the semifinals which he did three times in 1987, 1989 and 1991.

In his autobiography, “The Player”, Becker had the following to say about his challenges at Roland-Garros:

“’Paris is a movable feast’ wrote Hemingway about the French capital city. But for me Paris was always a problem. I won the indoor tournament at Bercy three times, but I never won the Grand Slam on clay at Roland-Garros. I reached the semi-final three times playing on a surface on which my main opponent was always myself.”

Robin Soderling lost the French Open final on two occasions and although he might not have had as illustrious a career as the players I mentioned above, the Swede deserves inclusion in this article at the very least for his absolutely shocking defeat of Rafael Nadal in 2009 in their round of sixteen match. In the finals that year he would lose to Roger Federer in what would be the Swiss legend’s only ever victory at the French. Soderling would return to the finals again a year later in Paris but allowed Nadal some measure of revenge for their previous encounter there as the Spaniard won easily 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

To include one active player on my list, I’ll go with Sir Andy Murray who has tasted success at other majors, but never in Paris. While Murray has “but” three Slams to his name, he has also reached the finals at the Majors eight other times including once at the French Open in 2016 where he was beaten by Novak Djokovic.

Murray’s career has probably not been given enough credit considering his lopsided win/loss ratio in Slam finals, but I think we can chalk that up to the fact that he’s played in arguably the toughest time period ever in men’s tennis. I feel like anyone who has won a Slam during the Big 3 era should have their total count multiplied by a factor of 2-3! Of Murray’s eight losses in such circumstances, five were against Djokovic and three were against Federer.

Who’s on your list of talented men’s tennis players who have never triumphed at Roland-Garros? I could have gone a bit further back and mentioned John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, but tried to keep things to more recent times. Feel free to share your list of top French Open casualties with me on Twitter as I’m sure I’m missing some good ones! Maybe this year we’ll end up with a first-time winner, in fact the odds are good considering Djokovic is the only repeat champion among the final eight players in the quarter-finals as I type this article.

Enjoy the end of another fantastic clay court season everyone and I look forward to next week’s installment of my National Bank Open column as I start ramping-up for Canada’s Premier event!

The ATP's best return to Toronto this summer for the National Bank Open August 5 to 13 at Sobeys Stadium. Tickets are on sale. Get your tickets today!