There's nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there's also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.
You only have to listen to the two men who played it to understand how high the stakes were for the 1984 men’s final at Roland Garros. Lendl has said that, looking at his French Open career in its entirety, which included three titles and a 53-12 record over 17 years, the only match he cares about now is his win over McEnroe in ’84. The same, unfortunately, can be said for Johnny Mac. No defeat over the course of his 15-year career would haunt the American as much as this one.
“It was the worst loss of my life,” McEnroe recalled. “Sometimes it still keeps me up at night.”
“To make a comparison to golf, I blew a 12-inch putt to win the Masters, and that’s hard to live with.”
For McEnroe, that disappointment begins with the fact that for two hours on that hot afternoon in Paris, he was playing the most masterful tennis of his life. At 25, he was at the peak of his considerable powers. He had started the 1984 season, his annus mirabilis, with 42 straight wins, and he would finish it 82-3, with titles at Wimbledon and the US Open. But perhaps the most telling measure of his excellence that season was how unbeatable he was on clay.
In his four previous trips to the French Open, McEnroe had failed to make it past the quarterfinals. No male player from the U.S. had won the title there since 1955, and, despite his obvious gifts, McEnroe seemed to be one more American attacker who didn’t have the patience for dirt. But in ’84, he was so superior to the rest of the men’s field that it didn’t matter what style he used; in his first six matches in Paris, he dropped one set. In the semifinals, he cruised past his longtime rival Jimmy Connors in straights.
After an hour of the final, it looked like he would do the same to Lendl. McEnroe arrived to loud cheers from the audience, and after serving-and-volleying his way to a two-set lead, he was trading knowing smiles with his friends in the stands—his doubles partner Peter Fleming had the champagne on ice. McEnroe had won his previous five matches over Lendl, a run that included two lopsided victories on clay that spring. The 24-year-old Czech was 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, and he looked to be well on his way to folding for a fifth straight time.
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“I get a feeling from time to time,” McEnroe has said when trying to explain what happened next, “when it seems that things are going too well, that something bad has to happen.”
That “something bad” was typically a line call that went against him. This time, McEnroe couldn’t blame the officials; this time, it seemed, he went looking for the problem. In the third set, he found it, of all places, in a headset—an NBC cameraman had taken his off and left it on the sidelines, “squawking while I was trying to play.” Unable to ignore it. McEnroe stalked to the camera pit, picked up the headset, and dropped an f-bomb into it at the top of his lungs. “Just like that, my concentration was shot.”
Well, maybe not just like that. While Lendl would win the third set, McEnroe would regain his form long enough to break twice in the fourth and get to within two service holds of the title. By then, though, the clay, the heat, and even the Parisian crowd that had applauded him began to have their revenge—by the fifth set, their cheers for the American had turned to boos. Worse for McEnroe, he was half a step slower as he approached the net. It was just the opening that Lendl needed.
“I saw hope as soon as I broke him,” Lendl said. “I felt that once I could break him, I could do it again.”
Instead of seeing his passing shots cut off and volleyed for winners, the Czech began to find the holes he needed to rifle them for winners. Instead of dominating with his lefty serve, as he had early on, McEnroe couldn’t buy a first serve. The match would last for 51 games, the most in a French final in the Open era. By the end it was Lendl’s superior fitness, as much as McEnroe’s lapse in concentration, that made the difference. The final point said it all: Set up with a high forehand volley that he would put away 99 times out of 100, McEnroe hit it wide.
Lendl was overjoyed by the miss, but so exhausted by his effort that he could muster just one sentence in his winner’s speech: “I’m very happy that I won my first Grand Slam tournament here in Paris.”
McEnroe would never return to the French Open final; it would be left to Michael Chang five years later to beat Lend and end the U.S. men’s drought in Paris.
“It’s the only match in which I ever felt I was playing up to my capabilities and lost,” Johnny Mac would say.
But while the defeat would haunt McEnroe in later years, in the short term it served as inspiration. Determined not to take his foot off the pedal again when he had a lead, he would go on that year to beat Connors in the Wimbledon final and Lendl in the US Open final, each in one-sided straight-set matches.
For Lendl, the effects of his breakthrough at the French would be felt later. Knowing now that he could beat McEnroe when it counted, he would knock the American out of the No. 1 spot in 1985 and dominate the sport for the rest of the decade. The game’s biggest choker would transform himself into its most iron-willed champion. All Lendl needed was an opening.
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*Matches subject to change