These days, the « surprise guests » are getting rarer and rarer in the second week. Let’s go back to Johan Kriek’s improbable semi-final. It was exactly 30 years ago. In 1986, this player who was allergic to clay just came to Paris to please his wife, who wanted to see Paris !
Roland-Garros 1986 ? It features among the most eccentric editions. If in 1984 and 1985, the first top-four seeds had reached the semi-finals, during that year, everything went bananas ! It started with Mats Wilander, the title-holder, defeated in the first week by Andrei Chesnokov, a young Soviet whose press conferences were watched by the KGB. In the middle of the tournament, the start Yannick Noah had to withdraw, after having his foot burned by a laser treatment. And it ended with a final in which featured an almost unknown player, Mikael Pernfors, his brush cut and his Humma outfit, to finally end up being punished by the world number 1, Ivan Lendl, in three small sets. The rare logical instant of a week also disturbed by the presence in the semi-finals of the South-African-born American player, Johan Kriek, who was labeled a clay intolerant due to his obsession with serve and volley…everybody has a reason to hate clay. However, Kriek seemed to have a complex about it, « essentially because everyone told me that I was almost incapable of playing on it. To be honest, I only started playing on it when I was 19 ! » Just like Scott Davis, Tim Mayotte, David Pate or Pat Cash, Johan Kriek had come once to see what the Porte d’Auteuil looked like. In 1979 precisely, losing in the first round. Then, in front of a journalist or two, or even none, the (opportunistic) winner of two Australian Open, which the stars hadn’t attended, in 1981 and 1982, must have sworn to never come back.
His wife’s American Express
But then, in the middle of the 80’s, Johan Kriek made two decisive resolutions : letting his moustache grow, to look like Joe Penny in Riptide,and coming back to Paris, as a tourist, as he’s never even won a single match on the European clay : « Coming to Roland-Garros, I didn’t even think I could win a single match. I only told myself to do my best. » Totally relaxed, the American, who was 28 in 1986, even made the joke of the year after putting down his luggage : « I came here because I came with my wife who wanted to go shopping in Paris ! » The quote made the headlines, but nobody would have remembered it if Kriek hadn’t went through five rounds. The first one was easy, and ended in three sets against the Brazilian Carlos Kirmayr. The second a little less easy, as he lost a set against the Czech Milan Srejber. The third began with a bit of a fight with Luiz Mattar (they almost hit each other with their racquets). In the fourth round, Kriek won after Yannick Noah’s withdrawal (he probably wouldn’t have won a single set) before defeating, to everyone’s surprise, Guillermo Vilas in the quarter-finals…In short, Johan Kriek was almost more talked about on that day than during his whole career. Thank you Miss Kriek ? « When I see my wife’s American Express bills, I tell myself that I really need to win matches ! », he joked in front of the cameras of TF1. Every single day got better for him, as he said : « This tournament is a joke ! »
« Kriek in the fourth round, imagine ! »
Problem : to defeat Vilas, Kriek had put so much power in his serves and his volleys that he broke his wrist. Logically, he completely missed out on his semi-final (6-2, 6-1, 6-0), against Ivan Lendl, who remained in his sweatpants to face the cold and the non-existant opposition. At a point where the crowd booed him and the president of the ITF, Philippe Chatrier, takes him down in front of the press. « I couldn’t play, I should have given up », said the player after the match, before making his come-back the next year, only to be defeated in the first round. If the audience never saw him again, Yannick Noah still thinks about him : « I had a dream table ! Johan Kriek in the fourth round, imagine ! And Lendl in the semis…Lendl at Roland ! Give me Lendl at Roland ! When I saw the semi-final on TV, I saw Lendl playing in his trackies. He didn’t even take them off because it was so easy. It drove me nuts ! » Not everybody got the joke…