June 6, 1999: The day Andre Agassi finally won Roland-Garros
- 06 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, June 6, 1999, Andre Agassi finally triumphed at Roland-Garros, eight years after his second consecutive final loss in Paris. To achieve that feat, he had to come back from two sets to love to win a dramatic final against Andrei Medvedev, 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. By adding the French Open title to his list of achievements, Agassi became the first player to complete a career Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 (the Australian also won all four slam titles that same year), and became the first player to win the four Grand Slam events on four different surfaces.
Andre Agassi, the Las Vegas Kid, was a tennis legend. He had turned professional in 1986 and he had soon become one of tennis’ biggest superstars, thanks to his amazing tennis skills but also to his interesting outfits, including the iconic denim shorts and the pink lycra bicycle shorts (worn underneath).Taught by his father and at the Nick Bollettieri Academy, his game relied on a great return (the best of his time) and on hitting the ball on the rise off of both sides wings with incredible power, which was revolutionary at the time and later copied by generations of tennis players.
After finishing runner-up three times, once at the 1990 US Open and twice at Roland-Garros (1990 and 1991), he claimed his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 1992, defeating big server Goran Ivanisevic in the final (6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4). This title was followed by the 1994 US Open and the 1995 Australian Open, the only time he beat his eternal rival, Pete Sampras, in a Grand Slam final (4-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4). He became world No 1 shortly after this success, on April 10, 1995, for 30 weeks.
In 1996 and 1997, despite winning a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Agassi had a very hard time and his ranking dropped as low as No 141 in the world. Displaying great humility, he went back to play on the Challenger Tour at the end of 1997 to regain confidence. He slowly came back to the top in 1998, finishing the year as world No 6, although his Grand Slam results were disappointing. In 1999, his best result before Roland-Garros was a semi-final loss to Jan-Michael Gambill in Scottsdale, and Agassi had only played one clay-court tournament, in Rome, where he lost in the round of 16 against Patrick Rafter. He was ranked No 14 when Roland-Garros started.
Andrei Medvedev was born in 1974, in Kiev. After claiming his first tile in Genova, at 17 years old, he had an early breakthrough, as his peak years were 1993-1994, before he even turned 20. In these years, he became the third teenager after Mats Wilander and Boris Becker to earn $1 million in prize money, claiming five of his 11 career titles. He was particularly dangerous on clay; he reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 1993 and the quarter-finals in 1994 (each time defeated by the future champion, Sergi Bruguera), and claimed two Masters 1000 titles on this surface in 1994, in Monte-Carlo and Hamburg.
In May 1994, he obtained his best ranking as world No 4. In the following years, nagged by various injuries (back, shoulder), he exited the top 10 and remained a solid top-40 player, claiming two more Masters 1000 crowns in Hamburg in 1995 and 1997, without any remarkable Grand Slam results. In 1998, his ranking dropped dramatically and in early 1999, struggling with motivation, he left the top 100 for the first time since 1992. He arrived in Paris as the world No 100 and had not won two matches in a row since the start of the season.
The story took place at Roland-Garros, Paris. The venue, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now the only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective.
Both players had a specific relationship with Roland-Garros. For Medvedev, it was the only Grand Slam tournament where he had reached the semi-final and got past the fourth round more than once. For Agassi, it was a place filled with heartbreaking memories. The Las Vegas kid had lost two finals in a row here while being the favourite, against Andres Gomez and Jim Courier. In the meantime, he had won the three other Grand Slam tournaments and Roland-Garros was the only major crown he hadn’t claimed.
It is safe to say that the 1999 Roland-Garros final featured two unexpected players. On the one hand, Agassi, who had not gone past the fourth round here since 1995 and not past the second round in his past two appearances. Since his early years, his game had evolved to be more effective on hard courts, and his clay-court season had been way too short for someone seriously aiming for the title. In fact, in his autobiography, he would quote himself, responding to his coach talking about winning the French Open: “Man, that ship had sailed”.
On the other hand, there was Medvedev, the former prodigy, frustrated by injuries and his poor latest results. Ranked No 100, he was one of the last players to enter the main draw in Paris automatically. Two months earlier, in Monte-Carlo, he was thinking about quitting tennis. He was talked out of it by… Agassi, who gave him a pep talk as the two players were having a late night.
Now, these two players were facing each other in the Roland-Garros final. Agassi had managed to eliminate the defending champion, Carlos Moya, in the fourth round (4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1). Medvedev had defeated world No 2 Pete Sampras, in the second round (7-5 1-6 6-4 6-4), and Gustavo Kuerten, who was one one of the favourites, in the quarter-finals (7-5, 6-4, 6-4).
With such peculiar stories, both players went on court very tight. They would both recall tension and cold sweat as they started the warm-up. Medvedev found his rhythm faster than Agassi. The Ukrainian started to play at a really high level while the American stood there, almost paralysed. Before he knew it, Medvedev had taken the two first sets, 6-1, 6-2. Agassi was going to lose a third Roland-Garros final, but as the third set started, rain stopped the match. He had the opportunity to settle down and talk to his coach.
After the break, Medvedev faced a different Agassi. Yet, the American had to face a break point that was almost a match point at 4-4. He saved it with courage, attacking the net. From his own recollection, he then sat down as he was switching sides and thought: “If I only play four good points I’m going to win the set”. He did.
Now the dynamic had changed. Agassi was now playing at his best level, hitting the ball on the rise and running Medvedev around the court. He dominated the two next sets and, after two hours and 52 minutes of play, Medvedev missed one last return. Twelve years after his first appearance in Paris, nine years after losing his first major final to Gomez, Andre Agassi had won Roland-Garros.
That year, after finishing runner-up to Sampras at Wimbledon (6-3, 6-4, 7-5), Agassi would claim a second US Open crown and regain the No 1 spot for 52 more weeks. In the following years, he would add three more Australian Open titles to his career achievements (2000, 2001, 2003), finishing with a total of eight Grand Slam titles and he would appear for the last time at the top of the ATP ranking on September 7, 2003. In 2005, aged 35, he would still reach another Grand Slam final in New York, where he was defeated by Roger Federer (6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1). Only in 2006 would he leave the top 10 once and for all. Playing only eight tournaments, he would end his career at Flushing Meadows. After delivering a last epic fight to prevail against world No 8 Marcos Baghdatis (6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5), he would be defeated by Benjamin Becker in the third round, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5.
Thanks to his Roland-Garros final, Medvedev would be back in the top 30 and would climb back as high as No 20 in May 2000. Defeated by future runner-up Magnus Norman in the fourth round of the 2000 French Open, his ranking would then continuously drop, especially after an ankle injury that would force him to end his season in July. Back on the tour in 2001, he started to play more scarcely in the second half of the season and retired from professional tennis at the end of the year, beating a last top 10 player in St Petersburg (Tommy Haas, defeated 3-6, 7-6, 6-4), before losing to Stefan Koubek (7-6, 6-2).
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