Ten years ago, Andre Agassi, arguably the most popular U.S. competitor ever, made a big play for Steffi Graf, arguably the greatest women’s player ever. The scene was Roland Garros, site of some of Agassi’s most harrowing defeats, and a place where Graf had met with both triumph and sorrow.
Agassi, who had divorced actress Brooke Shields earlier that year, was fascinated by Graf, an attractive, thoughtful and sweet person, but one who could be mistrustful and kept most folks at a distance.
But Agassi’s coach, Brad Gilbert, pushed him along, telling his friend that he just had to make an effort to meet her.
“I want no misunderstandings. I think you’re beautiful and fascinating and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what appears to be the pillars of your life,” Agassi wrote to Graf in a note. “Can we just have lunch or dinner or coffee, take a walk, I don’t care. I just want to get to know you better.”
Graf relented and the rest is history, as the two were married two years later and now have two children, Jaden and Jazz. They have become the pillars of the Las Vegas tennis community and will travel to Paris this month to relive their triumphs. And what incredible victories they were.
Staging a comeback that placed him among the pantheon of greats, Agassi became the first man in history to win a Slam on four different surfaces when he arose from the dead and overcame Andrei Medvedev 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 to claim the title. In winning his first major on clay, Agassi joined legends Rod Laver, Don Budge, Roy Emerson and Fred Perry as the only men to win all four majors.
The ever-emotional 29-year-old hadn’t won a Masters Series title in nearly three years, much less seriously competed deep in the second week of a Slam. He had nearly opted for shoulder surgery and played only a couple of clay-court events prior to the French. In the second round, Agassi was on the ropes against Frenchman Arnaud Clement, down two sets and two points away from another ignominious exit. But he showed incredible heart, as well as a brutal, physical style that wore down all in his path. Down a set and two breaks against defending champ Carlos Moya, Agassi came roaring back to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1. Then, in the semis, a bit of luck came his way when rain came just when Dominik Hrbaty was on a roll early in the fourth set. But since a rain break killed him against Jim Courier in the ‘91 final, he was happy to take the gift and won 6-4, 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-4.
At 4-4 in the third set in the final, Agassi double-faulted to give Medvedev a break point and visions of his horrible losses to Courier and Andres Gomez in ‘90 and ‘91 came flooding back.
“I was in shock and embarrassed and real disappointed that the final was potentially a blowout,” Agassi confided.
Then he put his head down and simply out-toughed his foe. He remains the last U.S. man to be the toast of Paris. “[Winning Roland Garros] has been a big obstacle for me, psychologically and emotionally, this being the last of the Slams I haven’t won, me being ranked No. 140 a couple years ago, believing if I just tried hard enough, some good things would be still waiting for me,” Agassi said.
There haven’t been two more dramatic back-to-back days in Paris since ‘99. The day before, then No. 1 Martina Hingis imploded against Graf, as she was obsessed with proving that she would eventually be called the greatest of all time and that this “Steffi thing” on the other side of the draw was a merely a media illusion.
In a petulant, pouty and disturbing performance, Hingis lost control in the second set, she frequently disputed calls and served underhanded on two match points, inciting the crowd to a frenzy of boos and whistles. After Hingis lost the contest 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, she fled the court weeping, only to return on the arm of her mother, who needed three minutes to calm her daughter down as the Swiss was choking on sobs. Graf said, “I felt bad for her. It was one of the craziest matches ever.”
Title-less in ‘99 and following her umpteenth minor surgery, Graf gave herself virtually no chance coming in. The 29-year-old had her hands full with Anna Kournikova (yes, the Russian was once a very talented player) in the fourth round, and against Lindsay Davenport in the quarters. In the semis, she had to put down her archrival, Monica Seles, 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-4 in a nail-chewing contest. She cried, happily. “It was extreme joy,” she said.
But the win over Hingis, who had won Australia and was pining for her first French triumph, was even more impressive, because the Swiss called her out prior to the match. “Steffi’s won it five times,” Hingis snarled. “This is about time for me.”
Hingis played error-free in the first set, but her nerves were still apparent as she stomped her foot, smiled in disgust and broke her racket. But at 2-0 in the second set, Martina melted down, becoming unglued at an inconsequential point when one of her shots was called out. Hingis was so infuriated that she went all the way over to Graf’s baseline to circle what she believed was the correct mark, spurring the crowd into a jeering rage. Even though Hingis did serve for the match at 5-4, Graf’s game had reached heights that the little Swiss could not scale. Later, after sweetly slurping down two glasses of champagne, a starry-eyed Graf took it all in. She’d play her last Slam two weeks later at Wimbledon. “When I look back at my career, this will be the most incredible memory,” she said with a smile. “This one was perfect.”