Have the French gone mad? No one denies that the Gallic urge to
defy convention can be charming--so long as it's limited to
admiring the great films of Mickey Rourke--and who doesn't want
to believe that healthy living includes a diet of wine, cheese
and a hearty pack of smokes? Even when France voted last week to
bring back socialism, in a move that could destroy all hope of
European unity and progress, it somehow made perfect sense. Au
contraire is the French national slogan. But this time they've
gone too far: After selling tickets and TV rights to what was
supposed to be the 1997 French Open, they instead staged one of
the most farcical tournaments in the history of tennis. The
men's champion was a surfer from Brazil who had never won a tour
event. The women's champ held her boyfriend prisoner for the
final week. It was very surreal and very French, like a film in
which even the subtitles don't make sense and after which
everybody walks out agreeing it was one of the best things
they've ever seen.
In time, maybe what happened at Roland Garros will be considered
some kind of twisted masterpiece. The French Open has always
been the aberration of the Grand Slam circuit, bedeviling the
sport's greats with its ponderous red clay and producing a slew
of one-hit wonders. This year's edition, however, went way
beyond that. On the men's side no American made the
quarterfinals for the first time since 1969, three unseeded
players made the semis for the first time at a Grand Slam event,
and, most astonishingly, 66th-ranked Gustavo Kuerten beat
two-time French Open titlist Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to
become the second-lowest-ranked winner in the history of the
Grand Slams. In case you thought the women would keep things
halfway rooted in normalcy, Steffi Graf's confidence crashed,
Monica Seles showed up stripped of her former greatness, and
top-ranked Martina Hingis, rolling through this year with a 37-0
record, was taken apart in the final by Iva Majoli of Croatia,
6-4, 6-2, and looked--for the first time in her short
career--like a 16-year-old in over her head.
"You just killed me today," Hingis told Majoli on the podium
before the champion raised her new trophy, which glinted in the
Parisian sun. It was true: Never before had a women's player
seeded so low (ninth) won at Roland Garros. But in the upset of
the year the 19-year-old baseliner pummeled Hingis with deep,
brutal ground strokes and a dominating serve that kept her from
ever facing break point. So emphatic was her victory that
Majoli, who had languished long enough as a phenom that the days
when she might make a breakthrough seemed to have come and gone,
now believes she's ready to make her move.
"I know Martina is Number 1, and there is Steffi and Monica,"
Majoli said afterward. "But I feel I could fight with them for
that first place. I think I'm ready."
June 15, 1997
Such an open attack on the elite is hallowed tradition in these
parts. The French call an upset-riddled Open un tournoi sans
tetes--a tournament without heads--and they set up the weekend's
first decapitation with delicious care. Although this was
Hingis's first tournament since arthroscopic surgery on her left
knee seven weeks ago, she seemed invincible going into the
final, overcoming fear and rustiness to plow through former
champions Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the quarterfinals and, more
impressively, Seles in the semis. The day before the final, no
less an expert than seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert
said of Hingis, "She's already won it."
Majoli, on the other hand, had barely won a three-setter with
Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round and suffered from fever
and stuffed sinuses the night before beating Amanda Coetzer in
the semifinals. She summed up her expectations for the final
this way: "Martina hasn't lost a match this year. I'll take some
antibiotics tonight just to get better."
If that wasn't enough, before Saturday's final the French Tennis
Federation held a ceremony with all the trappings of a
coronation. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the first
women's French championships, and the prematch minutes were
filled with speeches, balloons and the presence of former
champions Francoise Durr, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley and Evert, who
waved like a queen from her TV booth to the masses below. The
eyes of history were on Hingis--and somewhere Robespierre was
laughing. This wasn't Marie Antoinette and the Paris mob, but as
her vaunted backhand kept sailing into the net and Majoli's
strokes moved her about like a pawn, Hingis began to fray.
Broken in the fifth game of the second set, Hingis took a
bathroom break that went beyond the regulation five minutes. The
crowd began to murmur. In the next game Hingis blew a chance at
break point by dumping a forehand into the net, then tossed her
racket the width of the court. The stadium exploded in a barrage
of whistles and boos. When Hingis took an injury timeout,
claiming she had cramps, as Majoli was about to serve for the
match, it smacked of desperate gamesmanship, and she lost her
last vestiges of support. So much for royalty.
"Today I didn't have anything," Hingis said. "It just wasn't
going the right way I wanted to have it on the court."
It didn't go right for any of the top men, either. Forget the
toppling of hard-court kings like Pete Sampras; that's expected
in Paris. But even the clay specialists couldn't survive this
year. The much-touted 18-man Spanish Armada, the largest group
of Spaniards ever to play a Grand Slam event, were led not by
the struggling Bruguera but by Alex Corretja, the most
consistent winner of the '97 clay season. Nearly the entire
Armada sank, however, and in the end the lone survivor was
Bruguera, who was seeded 16th only because a number of top
players had withdrawn before the tournament.
The tone of the fortnight could be summed up in the person of
Kuerten, a freewheeling 20-year-old beanpole known for singing
in the locker room and surfing near his coastal home of
Florianopolis. With his bouncy mop of hair, loud yellow-and-blue
shirt and blue suede shoes, he resembled nothing so much as a
human dandelion. He grinned constantly during his matches, threw
up his arms in joy after mere rallies, cursed in Portuguese at
the ball, even skipped between points. There were times, midway
through the second week, when Kuerten would walk the grounds
unaccosted by the fans because they had no idea who he was.
They know now. He knocked off the last two French Open
champions, Thomas Muster and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, both in five
sets; survived another five-setter against Andrei Medvedev; and
electrified all onlookers with his go-for-broke shotmaking.
Playing in just his 49th match as a professional, Kuerten
dismantled Bruguera with a big serve, pinpoint strokes and the
occasional drop shot, then descended to earth and acted his age,
bowing in I-am-not-worthy style to six-time French Open champ
and trophy presenter Bjorn Borg on the podium and later
wrestling unsuccessfully with a champagne bottle handed to him
by a group of Brazilian fans. "I never won a title," Kuerten
said after the match as he snacked on a candy bar. "That's why I
don't know how to open champagne. But I drank a little bit
there. That's why I take chocolate now. I'm a little bit drunk."
For Majoli, too, these are heady days. Four years ago she was
widely seen as Seles's heir, an Eastern European with similarly
sharp features and similar huge strokes from both sides. Even
though she rose to No. 4 in the world, Majoli never felt ready
to join the top ranks of women. She enjoyed socializing too much
and became one of the few women to cultivate friendships on the
tour. She sponsored a five-year-old girl from Croatia, a war
orphan paralyzed during the fighting there; Majoli paid for the
girl's numerous trips to London for surgery. Such acts gained
Majoli a reputation for generosity, but on court she lacked
concentration, never seeming interested in realizing her
"I felt I wasn't ready for this world," she said after the
final. "I beat Monica and Arantxa and some other players at the
top, but mentally I was never there. But all of a sudden it
Chalk it up to maturity. A year ago Majoli realized she was
ready to put aside the distractions. "I decided, O.K., I feel
ready for something big," she said. Her ranking dipped to No.
10, but she won two tournaments this year and found during her
matches in Paris with Davenport and Coetzer that her
concentration had improved. She lost nine straight games to blow
a 5-2 lead in dropping the first set to Davenport and was down
4-0 in the second. In years past she would have given up. "That
match gave me so much power," Majoli said. "Before, I had the
chance to get to the semis, and I would blow the chance. This
year I saw the chance, and I didn't want to give it away." After
she beat Coetzer--while sick--Majoli realized something for the
first time: I can be No. 1.
Two days later she walked onto le Court Central at Roland
Garros. All week she had made her boyfriend (whose identity she
wouldn't reveal) stay in the hotel because he made her too
nervous when he attended matches. "He was my prisoner," Majoli
said. Then, when she made the final, she told him, "O.K., you
can come out." She felt perfect when she took the court. "Wow,"
she said later, "full stadium, balloons in the air. I was so
confident. I felt I couldn't lose. I didn't think about who I
was playing or what Martina's record was this year."
The French Open has always been her favorite tournament in her
favorite city. Majoli always felt the French rooting for her. On
Saturday evening there she was, riding back to the hotel after
winning at Roland Garros, and it was just like one of those
French movies--a nice one now: The driver took her around the
Arc de triomphe, on the famously confusing roundabout that
circles the gigantic monument to French winners. The place was a
sea of cars, inches apart, all going fast. "My Arc de triomphe,"
Majoli said as the car nearly tipped on a turn. "Really, though,
I could never learn to drive around this. It's the hardest
thing. I love Paris, but driving around the Arc de triomphe is
not for me."
She laughed hugely at this. Majoli knew: Paris and everything
about it was for her, and it will be for the rest of her life.