If you didn't Giggle and Grunt, if you didn't have a learner's permit in your wallet or homework being faxed to your hotel, the women's draw of the French Open was a closed shop. Monica Seles, the 16-year-old claymation figure from Yugoslavia by way of the tennis gulags of Florida, became the youngest woman ever to prevail at Roland Garros—and the youngest winner of a Grand Slam since Lottie Dod won Wimbledon in 1887—with a 7-6, 6-4 defeat of Steffi Graf in Paris last Saturday.
On the men's side, a graybeard, one of only six players 30 or older in the draw, triumphed. Ecuador's Andrès Gómez, 30, is a 12-year veteran who's so rarely in the spotlight that during Sunday's final, NBC cameras repeatedly honed in on the wrong woman for their wife-in-the-stands shots. But Gómez, the fourth seed, beat the 20-year-old, third-seeded Andre Agassi 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 before a crowd that had taken Las Vegas's enfant terrible to heart.
Whatever your opinion of Agassi's fluorescent tennis clothing, a subject about which Agassi feuded with Philippe Chatrier, the president of the International Tennis Federation and the major domo of the French Open, you had to feel for the Pooh-Bahs at Roland Garros. They thought they were running a Grand Slam event and instead got Junior Year Abroad. Still, if you considered Agassi ostentatious and Gómez dull, you could always thank heaven for little girls.
Ingenues on clay—traditionally one-dimensional athletes—would seem to be unlikely sources of excitement. However, only months after the women's circuit bid au revoir to Chris Evert, a promising new generation of players has emerged.
June 17, 1990
The new kids—Seles, 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati of the U.S. and puckish Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 18, of Spain, the defending French champion, who was upset in the second round by her doubles partner, Mercedes Paz, 23—aren't generating interest entirely by their personalities, though each seems likable enough. Just as riveting are their styles on court: dashing, daring, even cold-blooded. Seles, Capriati and Sanchez-Vicario all zing their backhands harder than Graf, who is now a doddering 21. "Tennis players have simply gotten better over time," says Evert, who was in Paris to work as a commentator for NBC. "It's about time something like this happened."
Martina Navratilova skipped the goings-on at Roland Garros, choosing to practice on grass in preparation for Wimbledon, which she hopes to win for a record-breaking ninth time. On the men's side, Ivan Lendl, the world's No. 1 player, also passed up the French to prepare for Wimbledon, which he hopes to win for the first time. Two other notable men were absent: The burned-out Mats Wilander was burying his father, Einar, in Sweden, while John McEnroe claimed injury but allowed that in light of his expulsion from the Australian Open in January, he feared a lapse of etiquette in Paris would disqualify him from Wimbledon by putting him over the ITF's 12-month fine limit. The top two men's seeds at Roland Garros, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, might as well have bagged the French too. They both were first-round losers—to Spain's Sergi Bruguera, 19, and Yugoslavia's Goran Ivanisevic, 18, respectively.
The most beguiling of the teenagers was the youngest, Capriati, who was playing her first Grand Slam event. Off court, she took in the town, appreciating it as best she could considering that her sense of history comes from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. She visited Notre Dame, which took her aback, inasmuch as she had thought it was a football field.
She obliged her many fans by slugging her way into the semis without dropping a set to become the youngest woman ever to advance so far in a major championship. Once there, though, Capriati fell 6-2, 6-2 to Seles, though she saved five match points before succumbing.
Seles reached the finals with 31 consecutive wins, a streak stretching back to March 17. Until recently she had been coached by Nick Bollettieri, the Florida tennis guru who also coaches Agassi. His parting with Seles was bitter. In 1986 the Seles clan—her father, Karolj; her mother, Esther; her brother, Zoltan; and her dog, Astro—moved from their home in Novi Sad to an apartment just outside the grounds of Bollettieri's tennis academy in Bradenton. In March the Seleses became upset with the amount of time Bollettieri was spending with Agassi and left, announcing that Karolj would be his daughter's coach—which, Monica insists, he had really been all along.
Bollettieri maintains that the Seleses owe him tens of thousands of dollars for room, board, travel and other amenities. However, he's most upset at what he considers their attempt to rewrite history. "If I wasn't her coach, I don't know what I did for those thousands of hours," says Bollettieri. "Not only did we put the time in on the court; we supported the whole family. They dispute everything."
Bollettieri says the Capriati camp asked him last October to become Jennifer's coach, and he refused because he felt an obligation to Seles. "It took me about two minutes to make that decision," he says. "And I told Mr. Seles about it right away. 'Thank you, thank you,' he said."
On May 13, Seles routed Navratilova 6-1, 6-1 to win the Italian Open, and a week later she whipped Graf 6-4, 6-3 to win the German Open. In Paris, Seles's trademark grunts were as loud as ever, but off the court her giggles were a pitch lower and more sparse, betraying a fatigue caused by her recent schedule. "Beating Martina and Steffi in the last couple of weeks, when I wasn't expected to, took a lot out of me mentally and physically," said Seles before the final.
Winning the toss against Graf and boldly electing to receive, Seles broke serve to open the match. She led 3-1 when rain forced a 55-minute stoppage in play. Graf rallied to take a 6-5 lead, but Seles forced a tiebreaker. When Graf won the next five points, Seles became introspective. "I told myself, 'Let's at least get a couple of points,' " she would say.
She did, but then whacked a return of serve into the net. Graf, now leading 6-2, had four set points. She failed to convert any of them, double-faulting on the last one. A minute later, following a loose Graf forehand and a Seles forehand pass down the line, Seles was strutting off the court, leading one set to none, heroine of an episode of The Perils of Pauline.
Graf never entirely righted herself after that. She continued carving out harmless slice backhands, as Seles let go with power from both sides. "What else can I do?" said Graf later.
In fact, Fr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üulein Forehand, undone by Seles's ability to hit winners fore and aft at the German Open, was espied at Roland Garros using a two-fisted backhand, presumably to keep up in the arms race. In the head war between the two young women, Seles may have won the final then and there, for she saw Graf practicing the unfamiliar stroke. "It was a little strange seeing her doing that," said Seles.
Now a long-stemmed 5'9", with a short torso and a hairdo that defies gravity, Seles looks in action as if she has sprung from the imagination of her father, a cartoonist. Contorting her face at the moment of contact, sometimes ascending on one leg, stork-like, and always adding those grunts, Seles has risen from No. 88 in October 1988 to No. 3, behind Graf and Navratilova. Along the way she sprouted five inches in height, which forced her to almost relearn the game she started playing at age nine.
"The net seemed a different height, and the racket seemed lighter, like I was playing Ping-Pong," she says. But this lofty vantage point gave her new angles from which to sight her shots, which seemed to bamboozle Graf.
Or maybe something else made Graf suddenly appear human. Allergies that plague her each year in Paris flared up early in the tournament, and she withdrew from the doubles. But by the quarterfinals Graf said she was feeling fine. No one was tasteless enough to badger her about West German press reports that her Svengali father, Peter, has allegedly fathered the infant daughter of Nicole Meissner, a 22-year-old West German model who, it was reported, filed a paternity claim against him and then withdrew it under oath.
"There is something missing," said Steffi following her loss, although she was unable to specify what it was. "Seles isn't a nightmare yet. I hope she isn't going to become one."
Among the men, the choice between Gómez and Agassi came down to more than whether you prefer your Andres singular or plural. On one side of the net in Sunday's final was an unassuming player from Guayaquil who was in his first Grand Slam final. On the other side was an upstart whose surname sounded like the French word that followed him around all week, aga‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºant, which means "aggravating."
Agassi's difficulties began upon his arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport. He was met there by a Roland Garros-dispatched chauffeur in a Peugeot 605, a new luxury model. Agassi, a lover of automobiles, insisted on driving into town himself. The chauffeur was equally insistent that this was not possible. By the driver's account, Agassi threw a tantrum, calming only after a phone call to the tournament office established that the auto insurance policy ruled out his getting behind the wheel.
Agassi's attitude seemed to endure throughout the fortnight. Agassi had been experimenting with new rackets and broke two of them in frustration during his first-round defeat of Martin Wostenholme. And his customary ensemble, a sartorial quadruple fault of pink, black, denim and Lycra touched off his differences with Chatrier, who issued a statement that the tournament would next year consider requiring predominantly white clothing—a la Wimbledon. The only outfit to which he referred belonged to Agassi. "Oh, well," said Agassi. "That'll be one less Grand Slam tournament to play in."
Chatrier quickly issued a revised, more generalized statement. But Agassi wasn't finished. "Those bozos will always look for something to talk about," he said. "I don't know who the bozos are. Oh, Chatrier? Well, he's a bozo. I want freedom to be what I want to be. Everyone in the world wants that, except Chatrier."
Agassi sounded a little more reasonable a day later. If Chatrier is such a patron of "tradition," he said, then why is Roland Garros plastered with sponsors' signage? "In Chatrier's stadium, you can't see any space without it," Agassi said. "When it's for Chatrier's benefit, tradition goes out the window."
Agassi is a walking billboard himself, but give him his due, at least he's up front about it. "To call Nike and tell them I have to wear white clothes, that would be difficult for me to do," he said.
Aside from his contretemps with tournament officials, Agassi's biggest clash before the finals came in the quarters, when he met Michael Chang, 18, the defending champion. Agassi overpowered Chang 6-1, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2. Chang was impressed. "The clay's given him more of a thinking game," Chang said. "You can't blow guys off the court on this surface. You've got to have some brains."
Yet Agassi attributes his climb from No. 7 at the end of last year to his current No. 5 less to mental toughness than to physical strength. Agassi was 5'10" and 150 pounds when he reached the semis in Paris two years ago. Now he's at least a dozen pounds heavier and almost six feet tall. "He's huge now," says Chang. "He's a monster."
Says Bollettieri, "There's only so much that technique can do. At some point the element of strength—recovery and movement—becomes a factor."
For Roland Garros, Agassi put the pressure of expectations on himself. "Last year I had a plane reservation after every match," he said. "This year I packed two weeks' worth of socks."
Gómez also had lots of sock—he hit a second-serve ace to win the first set and went after early opportunities to finish rallies. Otherwise, Gómez said, "I knew I'd get tired. I'm not a Wilander, who has legs that can go for six hours. You can't judge me by how many errors I make, but how many winners I hit."
For the record, Gómez had 72 unforced errors, which made for some ugly tennis. But he also had 58 winners, including 10 aces. Agassi likes to distinguish between losing and getting beat. "I've never had a problem getting beat," he says. "I've always had a problem losing." On Sunday, he admitted, he got beat.
Gómez took some time off from the tour after his son, Juan Andrès, now two, was born, and considered leaving for good last summer. In 1988, his ranking slipped to No. 43, down from a high of No. 5 three years earlier. He even weighed an offer to serve as commentator on Ecuadoran television for this year's French Open—until he heard that Lendl, who had bounced him from Roland Garros on four previous occasions, would bypass the tournament. "I think that over there," he said of his homeland, "they're happier that I'm here."
Though 14 years Gómez's junior, Seles already has an acute sense of posterity. She particularly appreciated her first Grand Slam title because, she said, "I didn't want to go into the history books 20 years from now and have people read, 'She was a great grunter, a great giggler and had a lot of hair.' "
It was left to Chang, wiser in the ways of the world than last year and feeling less world-weary after his elimination this year, to describe what Seles can expect as a child champion of the French Open. "There's an enormous amount of curiosity," he said. "Who is Michael Chang? What makes him laugh? What makes him smile? What makes him tick? Now that I'm out of the tournament I feel like an enormous weight's been taken off. It's a backpack-full-of-bricks type of thing."
Maybe Seles's father can simply leave the bricks out of the picture.