McEnroe and Lendl, Roland Garros 84

A look at the best male players never to win the French Open

Roland Garros has proven to be the most challenging tournament for some of the greatest players of the Open era, especially for those part of that now extinguished specie of serve and volley players. Let’s have have a look at the 5 best male players to never win Roland Garros:

John McEnroe

Grand Slam titles: 7
Best result at Roland Garros: final (1984)

82 wins, three defeats – that was the amazing record posted by John McEnroe in 1984 en route to one of the most incredible seasons ever in the Open era. And yet one of those three defeats – the final here at Roland Garros – has become legendary.

It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.
It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.

By making it to the final, McEnroe had racked up 42 consecutive victories, thrashing Jimmy Connors 7-5 6-1 6-2 in the semis. He was the huge favourite in this French Open final against Lendl, who was still seeking his first Grand Slam title at the age of 24. In the final McEnroe played beautifully to take the first two sets from Ivan Lendl in a little more than an hour. But McEnroe, distracted by courtside noises from a cameraman’s headset, lost his momentum. His temper took over as the Czech fought back to win in five sets and capture his first Grand Slam title.
McEnroe went on the win at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1984, but he would never get another opportunity to win Roland Garros.

Read what McEnroe said about this legendary final in his autobiography

Stefan Edberg

Grand Slam titles: 6
Best result at Roland Garros: final (1989)

Stefan Edberg‘s defeat in the 1989 final is perhaps even crueler than McEnroe’s defeat to Lendl in 1984, as he lost to a player who would never win a Grand Slam title again, Michael Chang.
With already three Grand Slams under his belt, Edberg was heavy favorite, despite the 17 yr old American’s incredible heroics en route to the final.The Swede led by two sets to one but could not finish it off and Chang became the youngest male player ever to win a Grand Slam title.

It was my great chance to win the French Open. Looking back, it was probably a match that I should have won with the chances that I had in the fourth set, but I should have been able to get out of that trouble. At the time, I thought I would get more chances to win the French Open, but I never did.

Read more on Chang’s victory in this portait by Rex Bellamy

Jimmy Connors

Grand Slam titles: 8
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985)

In 1974, Connors was among the players barred from Paris because they had agreed to play World Team Tennis, an American team competition which Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Federation, regarded as a “circus”. He had a stunning 99–4 record that year and won 15 tournaments, including all the Grand Slam singles titles except the French Open. His exclusion from the French Open may have prevented him from becoming the first man player since Rod Laver to win all four Major singles titles in a calendar year.

Although I’d missed the French Open for five years (it took four years for me to get rid of my anger and frustration after being banned in 1974), I always knew Roland Garros suited me. Not the surface or the balls they used, which slowed everything down too much for my game, but the atmosphere. It was hot, dirty, close and noisy… and I loved it. You had to be ready to grind it out. I’d buy a ticket for that any day.

Connors made the semifinals four times (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985) and the quarterfinals another four times, but one of his most memorable match at Roland Garros is probably his third round loss to Michael Chang in 1991. Read about it here.

Boris Becker

Grand Slam titles: 6
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1987, 1989, 1991)

Despite his 49 career titles, Boris Becker never won a clay court tournament, his best result being a defeat to Alberto Mancini in Monte Carlo’s final in 1989. That same year, Becker had his best chance at Roland Garros but lost (ironically) to a serve and volley player, Stefan Edberg:

I reached the semi-final three times, playing on a surface on which my main opponent was always myself. My game plan has always been to attack; that’s in my nature. On clay, however, the aim is to make fewer mistakes than your opponent. Paris is won by those who minimize risks and who hang on in there for four or more hours. Once I was very close to victory – against Edberg in 1989 – but it didn’t happen. I lost the fifth set 2-6

Pete Sampras

Grand Slam titles: 14
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1996)

One month after the death of his longtime coach Tim Gullikson, Pete Sampras reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, his best result ever on the Parisian red clay. On the way to the semifinals he beat two time winners Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier.

When I hit the wall against Kafelnikov, and felt my dream – our dream – blow up in my face, it really did sink in. Tim was gone. Our dream was gone. It was gone for good.

Dominant on hard courts and grass, Sampras was just a pale copy of himself on clay. Winner of three clay titles overall (Kitzbuhel in 1992, Rome in 1994 and Atlanta in 1998), he just couldn’t adapt his game to this surface. After his 1996 semifinal, he seemed to give up any hope to win Roland Garros, but later admitted he should have done better.

I could have worked a little harder. I mean I worked hard but you always look back at your career and feel I should have done.

Read what Pete Sampras wrote in his autobiography about his 1996 run through the semifinals

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