Everybody cried. The winners cried. The losers cried. They cried
into their towels at courtside and alone in their hotel rooms.
Some sobbed, and some just leaked a teardrop, but the bottom
line was that for such a dry French Open, it sure was wet.
This is an article from the June 17, 1996 issue
Breakdowns were de rigueur on the trying red clay of Roland
Garros, which is why it was so unexpected when Steffi Graf
started giggling in the third set of the women's final. But
maybe that's what separated Graf as she won a landmark 19th
Grand Slam singles title: After two weeks of grueling play, and
almost three hours of tension in the final against Aranxta
Sanchez Vicario, she still had enough perspective left to laugh.
Later, of course she cried.
For pure stamina and will, there has never been a champion like
Graf. She proved her remarkable mental and physical toughness
while defeating Sanchez Vicario 6-3, 6-7, 10-8, in the longest
French women's final ever, 40 games, three hours and three
minutes. Twice Sanchez Vicario served for the match in the final
set, at 5-4 and at 7-6, and both times Graf held on. Things were
still dire after Graf broke Sanchez Vicario for 7-all, at which
point she inexplicably got the giggles. Graf then held her
serve, but as she gazed around the stadium during the changeover
and listened to the crowd chanting her name, she was again
overwhelmed by the giddy sense of the moment. All she could do
was smile. "I was trying not to laugh, because I was afraid I
wouldn't concentrate," Graf said. "But a couple of times I
couldn't stop myself." Graf would fight a smile over the next
four games, and when Sanchez Vicario drove a last, enervated
backhand into the net, Graf let loose a shriek. She composed
herself temporarily but, like Sanchez Vicario, was soon wiping
Graf's 19th Grand Slam title moved her ahead of Chris Evert and
Martina Navratilova (18 each) on the alltime list and left her
tied with Helen Wills Moody and behind only Margaret Court, who
won 24. Is Graf a superior champion to Evert and Navratilova? It
is an interesting question, but she shrugged it off as
premature. "Maybe it will mean more later in my life," Graf
said, as she sat in a lounge beneath the stadium, clad in plaid
bicycle pants and a white shirt and clutching a bottle of
champagne. "But what I'll really remember is the way I won."
As for the rest of the field, some were more entitled to weep
than others. Henri Leconte cried because he was retiring.
Jennifer Capriati, who lost in the first round, cried because
life sucks. And Pete Sampras cried because he was still grieving
for his coach, Tim Gullikson, who died of brain cancer last month.
Sampras had to play the equivalent of three finals to reach his
first semifinal at Roland Garros. It was a pity that none of his
victories came with a trophy. That went to Yevgeny Kafelnikov,
who ended Sampras's emotional run in straight sets in the semis,
then became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam title,
dispatching Michael Stich of Germany in similarly efficient
fashion (7-6, 7-5, 7-6). Kafelnikov dropped just one set in the
tournament, and hefted the Coupe de Mousquetaires dry-eyed. His
coach, Anatoli Lepeshin, made up for that by sobbing unreservedly.
As historic as Kafelnikov's victory was, it was Sampras's
performance that will abide in memory. Sampras survived three
five-set matches--defeating two-time French champion Sergi
Bruguera in the second round, one-time Australian finalist Todd
Martin in the third and two-time French champion Jim Courier in
the quarterfinals--and he did it playing on nothing but "heart
and guts," in the words of his coach, Paul Annacone.
That's scarcely an exaggeration, given the circumstances of the
last month. After serving as a pallbearer at Gullikson's funeral
in Wheaton, Ill., on May 7, Sampras gave his 1993 Wimbledon
trophy to Gullikson's family. Then he went home to Tampa,
pulling out of two tournaments and ceasing to train--until he
decided that he could best serve himself and Gullikson by
playing the kind of French Open that his late coach would have
wanted. For much of the last year the French had been one of
their chief topics of discussion, and about a week before
Gullikson died, he sat on the porch at his home in Wheaton, with
his twin brother, Tom, the Davis Cup captain, and Sampras. Tim
was struggling to communicate, so Tom turned the conversation to
tennis. "What's the most important thing Pete has to do to win
the French?" Tom asked. Tim smiled and replied, "Win the last
Surely, the weather cooperated. Paris was struck by two almost
unbroken weeks of scorching sun, with temperatures routinely
80[degrees] and above. The terre battu, usually the consistency
of wet sawdust, dried to hard-court solidity, which favored
serve-and-volley players like Sampras. Clay-court purists such
as Michael Chang and even defending champion Thomas Muster fell
by the wayside.
But so, too, did Sampras, who wilted against Kafelnikov in the
heat. In his loss, he showed the frailty that could keep him
from being remembered as one for the ages.
How different it was for Graf, who did not drop a set in
reaching the final and provided a daily window on the way a
champion deals with emotional hurdles. The French Open was
nothing compared with the ordeal Graf has been facing back in
Germany. Her father, Peter, remains in jail in Mannheim awaiting
trial for alleged tax evasion, and the cloud of suspicion over
Steffi herself has not yet lifted. The explanation for her
fearless state of mind against Sanchez Vicario was that Graf
knows real trouble when she sees it--and a tennis opponent does
But if Graf is more demonstrative, she is also more vulnerable
to momentary lapses of control. She was two points from winning
the tiebreaker in the final when she reeled off four straight
wild misfires from the baseline and then double-faulted to give
Sanchez Vicario the set. "I got so nervous I couldn't keep a
ball in the court," Graf said.
It was Sanchez Vicario's turn to fold in the third, which lasted
an hour and 21 minutes. She sprayed three unforced errors in
each of her two crucial service games. Fatigue set in as well.
"If I had to run like she did, I'd have been gone," Graf said.
If Graf has established herself as a great champion, Sanchez
Vicario's legacy appears to be that of a perennial foil. The
24-year-old Spaniard is 3-7 in Grand Slam finals. While she has
pushed Graf to play some wonderful tennis and briefly
interrupted her reign as No. 1, theirs has not developed into a
rivalry on which legends are built.
Monica Seles has been the more daunting foe for Graf, pushing
her out of the top ranking for most of 1991 and all of '92,
before Seles was stabbed and left the game in 1993. Seles
returned to tennis last summer with her game intact but she is
admittedly out of shape, fighting chronic injury and in need of
a rigorous training regimen if she is to avoid embarrassments
such as her straight-set quarterfinal loss to Jana Novotna at
For Graf's chief historical rivals, Evert and Navratilova, there
was no shortage of quality competition; they had each other. It
is irresistible to wonder: How many Grand Slam singles titles
might either have won without the other to stand in her way?
Numbers and statistics offer only vague possibilities in answer.
But some indisputable numbers show that Graf, with 19 titles by
age 26, compares favorably to Evert, who did not win her 18th
until she was 31, and Navratilova, who won her 18th at 33. Graf
is also the only woman other than Court to have won the Grand
Slam. Graf knows the significance of all this, and calls
breaking Evert and Navratilova's record "pretty incredible."
But, she says, "this isn't the time to talk about it. The match
overwhelmed the record."
History may take a different view.