The 2001 French Open saw a quarter-final between Andre Agassi and the outsider Sebastien Grosjean. As the “agent provocateur”, Bill Clinton, the recently-retired U.S. President whose presence was to have a great, if unexpected, effect on his compatriot. Here is their story:
Paris, Wednesday, the 6th of June 2001, and on the centre court (recently renamed in honour of Philippe Chatrier, ex-president of the French Tennis Federation, who had died the previous year) the atmosphere is buzzing and the program is very exciting: it’s the men's quarter-finals, pitting world number three Andre Agassi against the local boy Sebastien Grosjean, himself tenth in the rankings. The latter remembers: "Andre had just won the Australian Open earlier that year, where I had myself been quite successful (losing out in the semi-final against his compatriot Arnaud Clement). I came into this game with confidence, even though I was facing Andre, the man to beat in the tournament."
The match starts well for the kid from Las Vegas, taking the first set in a scant twenty minutes, 6/1. His opponent, cap backwards as always, seems completely paralyzed by the challenge but refuses to surrender. "In a Grand Slam, matches can be drawn-out affairs with many twists and turns. My comparative lack of experience was to my disadvantage, so I was prepared to be led." Both players are on their chairs, getting ready to start the second set, when Bill Clinton suddenly appears in the presidential stand, making an entrance fit for a rock star.
Resplendent in a clay-coloured polo shirt, a tan to match and his bright smile, the man replaced a few months earlier as President of the United States by George W. Bush still enjoys an impressive popularity in France. His foreign policy had pleased the locals and the depravities of the Lewinsky affair made the French smile but didn’t shock them, this is the home of the French kiss after all! Attended by 27 bodyguards, no less, he receives a long standing ovation. In the press box, the consultant and former player Guy Forget is amused, "This may upset Andre Agassi a little." He could not have put it better: less aggressive, less accurate and visibly annoyed, from the very beginning of the set the American starts to suffer on the forehands of Grosjean. The Marseille-born player speeds up the game and takes the future husband of Steffi Graff, also in attendance, on at his own game. Forced errors start to accumulate and the scenario changes dramatically, with Grosjean turning it around to lead two sets to one.
Clinton in the loo
"I felt the crowd behind me and I regained my sensations, remembers the French. Andre had this way of always wanting to cut the exchange short, but I managed to make him run a lot." As for the presence of Clinton in the stands, the Frenchman (now based in Florida) swears he didn’t pay it any mind. "Chirac had already attended one of my games, but such things didn’t get to me." Nevertheless, the surprise guest is making quite an impression. It’s an unmissable opportunity for the celebrated polyglot French interviewer Nelson Montfort, always on the lookout, microphone in hand, to interview the great and the good in the crowd at Roland Garros for French television. "The games were passing and the bodyguards would not let me anywhere near him. So when I saw him make his way to the loo, I made the heels there with two cameras trained on him, so that he could not avoid giving me an interview on his way out!” Caught off guard, the former President answers with some small talk, and a nervous smile. "As soon as it was over, he turned to his security officer and said to him repeatedly “I never said yes!”. Clearly, he was not happy. Me, I was glad of my little trick. It’s not every day that you get the chance to interview a former President! "
Whether by chance or a scientific fact, Agassi takes advantage of the absence of his prestigious supporter to wake up. He finally raises his game, manages to break at the start of the fourth set, and even has three points to take a 3-0 lead and… Disaster. Bill Clinton returns to the stands, only to witness the ruin of his champion, who wins only one more game in his presence with Grosjean running out the victor, 1-6 6-1 6-1 6-3. "I beat Andre fair-and-square, I was just having a good day" says the Frenchman today. Comments corroborated by his opponent at the press conference. "Grosjean just played better than me” he admitted, upset at the turn of events. As for the presence of Clinton, the Sin City native claimed he "didn’t see him". "No way, he definitely saw him, affirms Nelson Montfort, he was in the front row of the presidential stand." Since that day, Bill Clinton has never attended a game of Andre Agassi.