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.
It’s rare to hear a top tennis player admit that, during a match as important as a French Open final, she was able to stop and take a second to savor the moment. It’s even more surprising when that top player is Steffi Graf. But that’s how good the 1996 women’s final was.
“It was such a big joy,” Graf said after her three-hour, three-minute win over Sanchez Vicario, “that sometimes when I was standing out there at 7-6 or 8-7, I almost didn’t know what to do, because I wanted to laugh, it felt so special.”
“And I usually don’t laugh,” Graf added, in case anyone believed that Fraulein Forehand was the frivolous type.
In her teens, when she was winning a calendar-year Grand Slam and running roughshod over the rest of the WTA, Graf was known for stone-cold domination. But by the mid-’90s, as her forehand began to go awry a little more often, and biggest rivals found ways to neutralize it, Graf became better known for her survival skills. Every Grand Slam seemed to end with her locked in another classic three-setter, and those classics usually ended with her willing herself to another win.
Graf engaged in marathon nail-biters with Martina Navratilova, Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles, Jana Novotna, and Mary Joe Fernandez, among others; by the mid-90s, though, it was Sanchez Vicario who had become her most common foil. The German gunner and the Spanish scrambler were made for each other, especially on clay.
WATCH—The ending of Graf's win over Sanchez Vicario in the 1996 French Open final:
The rivalry between Graf and Sanchez Vicario is remembered as one-way traffic rather than a see-saw battle. And rightfully so: Graf dominated their head to head 28-8. But rather than let that lopsided record discourage her, Sanchez Vicario had used Graf as motivation to become a better player. By 1996, four of Sanchez Vicario’s eight wins over Graf had come at Grand Slam events.
In 1989, at 17, she had stunned Steffi in the French Open final, 7-5 in the third set. (If Sanchez Vicario hadn’t pulled off that upset, Graf would have won two consecutive calendar-year Slams.) In 1994, Sanchez Vicario outlasted Graf again in the U.S. Open final, 6-4 in the third set. In 1995, Graf turned the tables on Sanchez Vicario in the Wimbledon final, 7-5 in the third. That match peaked, in the penultimate game, with a 32-point, 13-deuce, service break for Graf that many consider the greatest game ever played.
When Graf and Sanchez Vicario faced off again in Paris the following summer, it was the 15th straight time they had met in a final, and the fourth straight time in a Grand Slam final. This may have been the best of all of them.“It was a battle of wills—Graf’s unyielding, Sanchez Vicario’s unflagging,” Robin Finn wrote for The New York Times. “It was also a battle between the risky, sideline-skimming style of the powerful Graf and the run-around, run-them-down tenacity of the clever Sanchez Vicario.”
Graf seemed to have the match in hand when she led 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, only to watch as the ever-dogged Sanchez Vicario dug in even deeper and won seven straight points. In the third set, Sanchez Vicario led 4-2, and served for the match at 5-4 and 7-6; this time it was Graf’s turn to up her level and break. Finally, in the 17th and 18th games of the third, Arantxa’s energy flagged and a few too many errors flew from her strings.
“They had to come sometime,” Graf said. “Today, at the end, I was thinking, ‘She has to get tired, she has to get tired.’”
“I came so close,” Sanchez Vicario said. “It was very emotional, all the tension and all the nerves....We both played our best, but at the end, she pulled away.”
Neither player knew it at the time, but this match also marked the beginning of the end of an era. Graf and Sanchez Vicario would play just one more time, in the Wimbledon final a month later. By the following January in Australia, a new women’s major champion had been crowned, Martina Hingis, and the next spring Venus Williams made her French Open debut.
For the three hours that it lasted, this final made the usually stern and taciturn Steffi laugh—and wish she could play forever.
“These kinds of matches give you such satisfaction and emotions I know I’ll never have after my tennis career,” Graf said when it was over. “I don’t think they’re going to make me play longer, but they kind of tell me the reason why I’m still there.”
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*Matches subject to change