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French Farce
S.L. Price
June 16, 1997
In a tournament only Jerry Lewis could love, upstarts Gustavo Kuerten and Iva Majoli made like world-beaters at Roland Garros
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June 16, 1997

French Farce

In a tournament only Jerry Lewis could love, upstarts Gustavo Kuerten and Iva Majoli made like world-beaters at Roland Garros

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Have the French gone mad? No one denies that the Gallic urge to defy convention can be charming—so long as it's limited to admiring the great films of Mickey Rourke—and who doesn't want to believe that healthy living includes a diet of wine, cheese and a hearty pack of smokes? Even when France voted last week to bring back socialism, in a move that could destroy all hope of European unity and progress, it somehow made perfect sense. Au contraire is the French national slogan. But this time they've gone too far. After selling tickets and TV rights to what was supposed to be the 1997 French Open, they instead staged one of the most farcical tournaments in the history of tennis. The men's champion was a surfer from Brazil who had never won a tour event. The women's champ held her boyfriend prisoner for the final week. It was very surreal and very French, like a film in which even the subtitles don't make sense and after which everybody walks out agreeing it was one of the best things they've ever seen.

In time, maybe what happened at Roland Garros will be considered some kind of twisted masterpiece. The French Open has always been the aberration of the Grand Slam circuit, bedeviling the sport's greats with its ponderous red clay and producing a slew of one-hit wonders. This year's edition, however, went way beyond that. On the men's side no American made the quarterfinals for the first time since 1969, three unseeded players made the semis for the first time at a Grand Slam event, and, most astonishingly, 66th-ranked Gustavo Kuerten beat two-time French Open titlist Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to become the second-lowest-ranked winner in the history of the Grand Slams. In case you thought the women would keep things halfway rooted in normalcy, Steffi Graf's confidence crashed, Monica Seles showed up stripped of her former greatness, and top-ranked Martina Hingis, rolling through this year with a 37-0 record, was taken apart in the final by Iva Majoli of Croatia, 6-4, 6-2, and looked—for the first time in her short career—like a 16-year-old in over her head.

"You just killed me today," Hingis told Majoli on the podium before the champion raised her new trophy, which glinted in the Parisian sun. It was true: Never before had a women's player seeded so low (ninth) won at Roland Garros. But in the upset of the year the 19-year-old baseliner pummeled Hingis with deep, brutal ground strokes and a dominating serve that kept her from ever facing break point. So emphatic was her victory that Majoli, who had languished long enough as a phenom that the days when she might make a breakthrough seemed to have come and gone, now believes she's ready to make her move.

"I know Martina is Number 1, and there is Steffi and Monica," Majoli said afterward. "But I feel I could fight with them for that first place. I think I'm ready."

Such an open attack on the elite is hallowed tradition in these parts. The French call an upset-riddled Open un tournoi sans t�tes—a tournament without heads—and they set up the weekend's first decapitation with delicious care. Although this was Hingis's first tournament since arthroscopic surgery on her left knee seven weeks ago, she seemed invincible going into the final, overcoming fear and rustiness to plow through former champions Arantxa S�nchez Vicario in the quarterfinals and, more impressively, Seles in the semis. The day before the final, no less an expert than seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert said of Hingis, "She's already won it."

Majoli, on the other hand, had barely won a three-setter with Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round and suffered from fever and stuffed sinuses the night before beating Amanda Coetzer in the semifinals. She summed up her expectations for the final this way: "Martina hasn't lost a match this year. I'll take some antibiotics tonight just to get better."

If that wasn't enough, before Saturday's final the French Tennis Federation held a ceremony with all the trappings of a coronation. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the first women's French championships, and the prematch minutes were filled with speeches, balloons and the presence of former champions Fran�oise Durr, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley and Evert, who waved like a queen from her TV booth to the masses below. The eyes of history were on Hingis—and somewhere Robespierre was laughing. This wasn't Marie Antoinette and the Paris mob, but as her vaunted backhand kept sailing into the net and Majoli's strokes moved her about like a pawn, Hingis began to fray. Broken in the fifth game of the second set, Hingis took a bathroom break that went beyond the regulation five minutes. The crowd began to murmur. In the next game Hingis blew a chance at break point by dumping a forehand into the net, then tossed her racket the width of the court. The stadium exploded in a barrage of whistles and boos. When Hingis took an injury timeout, claiming she had cramps, as Majoli was about to serve for the match, it smacked of desperate gamesmanship, and she lost her last vestiges of support. So much for royalty.

"Today I didn't have anything," Hingis said. "It just wasn't going the right way I wanted to have it on the court."

It didn't go right for any of the top men, either. Forget the toppling of hard-court kings like Pete Sampras; that's expected in Paris. But even the clay specialists couldn't survive this year. The much-touted 18-man Spanish Armada, the largest group of Spaniards ever to play a Grand Slam event, were led not by the struggling Bruguera but by Alex Corretja, the most consistent winner of the '97 clay season. Nearly the entire Armada sank, however, and in the end the lone survivor was Bruguera, who was seeded 16th only because a number of top players had withdrawn before the tournament.

The tone of the fortnight could be summed up in the person of Kuerten, a freewheeling 20-year-old beanpole known for singing in the locker room and surfing near his coastal home of Florianopolis. With his bouncy mop of hair, loud yellow-and-blue shirt and blue suede shoes, he resembled nothing so much as a human dandelion. He grinned constantly during his matches, threw up his arms in joy after mere rallies, cursed in Portuguese at the ball, even skipped between points. There were times, midway through the second week, when Kuerten would walk the grounds unaccosted by the fans because they had no idea who he was.

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