A lousy spring doesn’t mean a bad French Open! In other words, preparation tournaments taking place right now are not necessarily a good indicator of what will happen in Paris. For if history has shown that it is possible to win a Masters 1000 before losing in the first round in Paris (Nyström in 1986, Wawrinka in 2014, etc....), the opposite is more common. Examples.
Jimmy Connors, semi-finalist in 1979
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 1979: no match
After five years of quarrel with Paris, Jimmy Connors arrived on an impulse in 1979: early May, two weeks before picking up the phone to ask for an invitation to the tournament, he was still playing indoor in Dallas! The day of his opening match on the 29th of May, the American superstar had not played a match on European clay since... The 5th of June 1973! Carried by the crowd, greeted as a messiah came to release the public of the Argentine-Swedish tyranny, Connors managed to roar until the semi-finals, where Victor Pecci, the pierced ear attacker, managed the feat of stealing his spotlight.
Christophe Roger-Vasselin, semi-finalist in 1983
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 1983: 1 victory/5 defeats
When Roland Garros 1983 started, the winner of the 1975 edition in junior was only 131st in the ATP rankings. Indeed, Christophe Roger-Vasselin had only won once since September, and had neither coach nor objective. Unlikely semi-finalist with a style remained frozen in the 70s, the French would even defeat Jimmy Connors in the quarterfinals, perfectly clearing the table for Yannick Noah, the eventual winner, who didn’t fail to thank him, by crushing him 6/3 6/0 6/0.
Mikael Pernfors, finalist in 1986
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 1986: 2 victories/2 defeats
At the beginning of this magical and unique fortnight for him, the prize list of Mikael Pernfors, 27th in the ATP, was very light: he simply had never won any match on European soil. The Swedish player eventually overthrew all the great attackers of his part of the table (Edberg, Becker and Leconte), landed a contract with Nike at the middle of the tournament and became a legend with his brush cut and his wide shorts. Pernfors even did the cover of Vogue the following year, in June 1987, and ended up in the window of many hairdressers all over the world!
Johan Kriek – semi-finalist in 1986
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 1986: no match
Never complain about having a woman who loves to go shopping! Best known for opportunely winning the Australian Open for two years when the tournament was abandoned by the stars of tennis, Johan Kriek tried Roland Garros a first time in 1979, before snubbing the tournament for seven years. When the American returned in 1986, it was not even for the enjoyment of clay that he actually hated: "I came to play here because I wanted to accompany my wife shopping in Paris." Nobody would have remember this joke if Kriek had not passed five rounds, sneaking in a way as absurd than unexpected in the semi-finals. Between a fight with Luiz Mattar in the third round, a surprise victory over Guillermo Vilas in the quarterfinals and semi-finals played in sweatpants (which is forbidden today) against Lendl, Johan Kriek almost made more noise during the fortnight than during his entire career. Thank you Ms Kriek? "When I see the bill for my wife's American Express, I think I'd better win matches."
Michael Chang, winner in 1989
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros: 5 victories/1 defeat
His underarm service symbolizes the triumph of youth and impertinence. Already high profile at 17, Michael Chang never did anything crazy on clay before scaring everyone in Paris. In Charleston early May, tired, he was even forced to withdraw before his quarterfinal.
Jim Courier, winner in 1991
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 1991: 2 victories/2 defeats
The image marked its era: Jim Courier ending Agassi with a killer ace, then falling backward arms outstretched, laughing. Three weeks before this first major title, Jim Courier was getting a good telling off in the parking lot of the Foro Italico by one of his coaches, Brad Stine. Defeated in the knockout round in Rome after being defeated from the opening round in Hamburg, Stine was taking Courier by the collar asking him to have a little more ambition... He didn’t have to wait long.
Henri Leconte, semi-finalist in 1992
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 1992: 3 victories/4 defeats
What was Henri Leconte doing when he wasn't at his best? He would go and breathe the fresh air of Normandy! And what did he do upon his return? He was flying on the court like a visionary. On the 28th of April, defeated by Larsson from his first match in Munich, Leconte was feeling depressed: "I'm getting tired of these fights to regain my level. I'm sick and tired!" The spectacle of his resurrection in Paris remains one of the most frightening ever seen at Roland Garros. With a stunning panache and envy, generous as a hero with a cape and sword, the world 200th flew to the semi finals by eliminating in passing Wimbledon defending champion Michael Stich. The legend of the "masked avenger" was born. Legendary.
Magnus Larsson, semi-finalist in 1994
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros: 2 victories/4 defeats
It has been the rule for 20 years: not a year at Roland without at least one Swedish player in the quarterfinals! When clay started to become a nightmare for Stefan Edberg, Sweden released another blonde from his hat in 1994: Magnus Larsson, a 6 ft. 4 in giant, even more spectacular and inventive than most of his Vikings predecessors in Paris. Larsson would mark the spirits by reaching the last four after saving six match points with panache in the quarterfinals against a German second fiddle, Henrik Dreekmann.
Mariano Puerta, finalist in 2005
Track record on clay courts before Roland Garros 2005: 9 victories/1 defeat
Obviously, the journey of Mariano Puerta has nothing surprising now that we know that the Cordoba player was caught up by the patrol. A few hours after he missed two opportunities to play a fifth set against the young Rafael Nadal in the final, the lefty was indeed controlled positive to a cardiac stimulant. Recidivist, he would be banned for life from the tournament. Rafael Nadal, on his part was about to become king. To each His Own.