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City of Love: Graf and Agassi first linked by 1999 French Open
Before they became the power tennis couple off court, the two were connected by a remarkable weekend 20 years ago at Roland Garros.
Published Jun 07, 2019
Before Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi became the power tennis couple off court, the two were connected by a remarkable weekend 20 years ago at Roland Garros.
At the 1999 French Open, Graf and Agassi walked away winners from matches once out of their hands. In each of their cases, a pivotal moment changed the trajectory of their fates, bonding the storied champions with mesmerizing comebacks only a screenwriter could imagine.
Graf, who had triumphed five times at Roland Garros, was making her final appearance in Paris. The 29-year-old found herself down a set and a break to top seed Martina Hingis, but like a true champion, she never panicked, perceptive to the then-immaturity of her worthy adversary.
The 18-year-old Hingis had earlier been coded for racquet abuse and received a point penalty for crossing over to Graf’s side of the court to argue a controversial call on the baseline at 6-4, 2-0. Though it wasn’t a turning point in terms of the scoreboard, it forced Hingis to battle a second opponent, the spectators.
“At a certain moment in that match, I think Graf knew she was getting outhit, outmaneuvered. I genuinely think there was some surprise to it turning,” says Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo. “It was Hingis’ match, until it wasn’t. She genuinely lost track of the match and the closeness of it. Graf just held her ground.”
Hingis came within three points of lifting the one major trophy that eluded her when serving at 6-4, 5-4, but the inability to get across the finish line in a hostile environment proved detrimental. The pro-Graf crowd erupted when the German leveled the set, and she maximized this new life in the match, channeling the energy of the Philipp Chatrier stands to capture her 22nd major crown, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.
"I feel French," Graf said on-court afterwards. "I've played all over the world, and I've never had a crowd like this this, ever."
For Agassi, he entered as the clear favorite in his championship bout with Andrei Medvedev. Seeking to become the first man since Rod Laver to complete a career Grand Slam and having lost in the Roland Garros title match twice in 1990 and 1991, much was on the line for the beloved American, who had considered skipping the event that season.
Medvedev, an accomplished clay-courter, came into Paris ranked No. 100 and on a three-match losing streak. But the Ukrainian strengthened with each win, ousting Pete Sampras and Gustavo Kuerten along the way. He looked to be in prime position to cap his own redemption story off with an improbable title, dropping just three games in taking a two-set lead before rain briefly sent the players off the court.
Weather delays can often change the course of history, and in this instance, it played its part. Agassi’s coach, Brad Gilbert, went off on his student in the locker room. The rant was unprovoked and unplanned, as Gilbert explained to TENNIS.com.
“My coach had never done anything like that before, and neither had I. It wasn’t planned. It just happened that way. I only had 90 seconds or so with Andre. I thought we would have more time. When I slammed the wooden locker shut, I said go down with both guns blazing.”
That Agassi did. Having been the victim of an untimely rain delay on the same court in 1991 to Jim Courier, when he led by a set and a break, the inferno inside Agassi began to rise in temperature. He avoided the beatdown received in the first two sets, forcing Medvedev to stand his ground.
After trading earlier breaks, a double fault from Agassi at 4-4, 30-30 put Medvedev five points from winning his first Grand Slam championship. Agassi, not known for his feel at net, came forward on the next point to punch a compact forehand volley, which caught Medevdev by surprise. For Gilbert, this was the moment he knew the now glowing sun would shine on Agassi.
“Down break point at 4-4 in the third, he comes up with this forehand volley to win the point. I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ I knew then we had a match.”
Having missed three championship points at 5-3 in the decider, Agassi confidently served it out to win his first French Open, 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. With his pupil following in the footsteps of future wife Graf, it’s no revelation Gilbert believes this was fate’s exceptional way of working itself out for Agassi.
“Everything happens for a reason. Both had these amazing comebacks to make history in Paris,” said Gilbert. “They both reached the Wimbledon final, and lost. Steffi then retires. That period was the one month that gave Andre the recognition of what his next purpose in life would be.”