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Kournikova's debut; Seles' emotion: The Five Most Underrated Slam Runs
Plus: Jurgen Melzer drops Djokovic in Paris; Mary Joe Fernandez's revenge at Roland Garros; Kevin Anderson's breakthrough at Wimbledon.
Published May 08, 2020
From career titles and winning streaks to ranking breakthroughs and in-match numbers, tennis is a stat-lover’s playground. And with so many big names achieving so many big things seemingly every week, many of the sport's most incredible stats are forgotten as time goes by—underrated, if you will.
Grand Slams tend to bring out some of the greatest tournament runs in tennis, but with more than 200 major tournaments having been played in the Open Era, it’s often only the champions who get remembered. Some of the most heroic Grand Slam runs, though, haven’t ended in the winner's circle.
Here are our picks for five of the most underrated Grand Slam runs in tennis history.
While many focused on the Russian when she wasn’t winning, Kournikova put together one of the most underrated careers in tennis, one of the highlights being her run to the Wimbledon semifinals.
Having turned 16 years old just two weeks before the tournament, the 42nd-ranked Kournikova took out two Top 10 players along the way, beating No. 10 Anke Huber in the third round and No. 5 Iva Majoli, who was fresh off winning Roland Garros, in the quarterfinals.
Kournikova's run came to an end against No. 1 Martina Hingis in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-2, but she had already written her name in the history books. At the time, she was just the second woman in the Open Era to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon in her first attempt, after Chris Evert in 1972.
Kournikova would reach as high as No. 8 on the WTA rankings, her best singles results being four finals, including Miami in 1998. She also made another major quarterfinal at the 2001 Australian Open. Her biggest success came in doubles, winning two Australian Opens with Hingis and getting to No. 1.
“I never really thought about fame,” Kournikova said in a 2010 interview. “When I was playing I never even thought about it, analyzed it, planned it—there was no marketing strategy or anything.
“When I was playing on the tour, I played the match.”
The Austrian isn’t the only player from outside the Top 20 to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam, but it’s the way he did it in Paris that may have been forgotten over the last decade.
Seeded No. 22 that fortnight, Melzer not only took out No. 9 seed David Ferrer in straight sets in the third round, he pulled off a 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, the first time anyone had ever beaten the Serb from two sets down at a major.
And it’s still the only time. Today, Djokovic is 209-1 at majors after winning the first two sets.
“It’s the most incredible moment of my career,” said Melzer, who was also down 2-0 in the third set. “It was a very tough match, but I kept fighting. When I was two sets to nil behind and a break down, I just said to myself, ‘Why not?’ So I changed my game plan a little and it worked. It’s fantastic.”
Djokovic recently told Sky Sports Italia he considered quitting tennis after the loss.
“I wanted to quit tennis because all I saw was black,” he said. “But it was a transformation, because after that defeat I freed myself. I had won in Australia in 2008, I was No. 3, but I wasn’t happy. I knew I could do more, but I lost the most important matches against Federer and Nadal. From that moment I took the pressure off myself, and I started playing more aggressively. That was the turning point.”
Melzer would fall to No. 2 seed and eventual champion Nadal in the semis, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
(By the way, Nadal's record at majors after winning the first two sets? 212-1. His only loss came against Fabio Fognini in the third round of the 2015 US Open, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.)
Steffi Graf may have won the title at Roland Garros in 1993, but Fernandez certainly captured everyone’s hearts after an inspiring run to the final—and after almost beating Graf there, too.
Having come within two points of defeat in a 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Brenda Schultz-McCarthy in the fourth round, Fernandez pulled off one of the most incredible comebacks in Grand Slam history in the quarterfinals, rallying from 6-1, 5-1 down—fighting off five match points—to survive Gabriela Sabatini, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 10-8. And there was no letdown in her next match as she swept past one of the toughest clay-courters on the tour in the semifinals, No. 2 seed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 6-2, 6-2.
Graf had beaten Fernandez in all nine of their previous meetings, but this one was their closest yet. They split the first two sets before Fernandez broke for 4-3 in the third, seemingly on the verge of victory. The top-seeded German just snuck it out, though, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
“I learned that I am pretty tough,” Fernandez said of her run at Roland Garros that year. “I guess, in my head, I really never gave up. I have never really had my back against the wall that badly in such a major tournament. But I hung in there, and that gives me confidence for everything else.”
It was the American’s third major final, after a pair of runner-up finishes in Australia.
“The last two finals I played, I went into them to see what happened. Today, I had more faith in myself. I went in there believing I could win the match. It didn’t happen, but my attitude definitely was better.
“You know, I think Steffi had to win. I didn’t give her the match.”
The South African had a fantastic stretch on the tour a few years ago, reaching two major finals in a 10-month span and getting to a career-high of No. 5. But it was his run at the All England Club that was worthy of much more than just a runner-up plate.
First, Anderson pulled off a 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11 stunner over Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Not only had Federer beaten Anderson routinely in straight sets in all four of their previous meetings, but he’d won his last 32 sets in a row on grass going into that match, and he was a point from making it 35 in a row. One missed backhand is all it took to keep Anderson alive, though, and he went on to win after four hours and 14 minutes.
“I’ve already gotten tons of messages from support back home,” Anderson said after dethroning the eight-time Wimbledon champion. “Obviously at this sort of event, playing against an opponent like Roger is going to have a lot of coverage. I hope it’s an example of sticking to your dreams and believing in yourself.”
The former world No. 5 then went on to win the second-longest Grand Slam match in history in the semifinals, a 6:36 marathon against John Isner, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24. The fifth set alone lasted two hours and 55 minutes.
Anderson would fall to Djokovic in the final, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3), seemingly out of gas. He very nearly got himself back into the match in the third set, though, earning two set points at 5-4 and another three set points up 6-5, but the Serb fought them all off and closed it out.
“I would have loved to push it to another set," he said. "But it obviously wasn’t meant to be."
As we said above, some of the most heroic Grand Slam runs haven’t always ended with the trophy, and a perfect example of that is Seles making it all the way to the final of the 1995 US Open in her first major in two and a half years before falling to Graf, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3.
But while most tennis fans remember those electric two weeks in Flushing Meadows, they may have forgotten about another inspiring Seles near-win at a major: the 1998 French Open.
Less than two weeks before the tournament began, tragedy struck as the former world No. 1’s father and lifelong coach, Karolj Seles, succumbed to his five-year battle with cancer. No one was quite sure what to expect as Seles stepped onto the terre battue for her first tournament since her father’s passing.
She won her first-round match against Annabel Ellwood, 6-0, 6-2.
“I wasn’t sure if I would be ready, emotionally, but it was just too tough for me to stay home," said Seles, who wore her father’s ring on a chain around her neck. "So many memories in every corner.
“My dad would love me to play.”
After quietly moving through her next few matches, the No. 8-ranked Seles pulled off her first big upset of the tournament with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 3 Jana Novotna in the quarterfinals, after having lost their last three meetings. She followed that up with arguably the biggest surprise of the year, crushing No. 1 Hingis in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-2, after having lost all five of their previous meetings.
Hingis had also won four of the last five majors, and 39 of her last 40 matches at the Slams.
“I knew I had that in me,” Seles said. “I wasn’t sure if I could do that today, but I believed I could.”
She would ultimately run out of gas in the final, falling to a tireless Sanchez-Vicario, 7-6 (5), 0-6, 6-2. But she was still the story of the tournament in many people’s eyes.
“These past few weeks have not been the happiest in my life,” she said. “It’s nice to see a little bit of sunshine after so many clouds.”
UNDERRATED TRAITS OF THE GREATS: Roger Federer—Winning ugly | Simona Halep—Boldness | Rafael Nadal—When to come to net | Sofia Kenin—Variety | Pete Sampras—Movement | Serena Williams—Plan B | Novak Djokovic—Forehand versatility | Chris Evert—Athleticism | Daniil Medvedev—Reading the room | Naomi Osaka—Return of serve
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