There’s nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there’s also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.
From the vantage point of 2018, Seles vs. Graf is the Rivalry That Should Have Been. But in early June 1992, it was very much the match-up of the moment, and one that appeared destined to match the length and intensity of the last great WTA rivalry, between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
When they stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier for the ’92 French Open final, a long future together seemed to be ahead of them. Graf, despite having won a calendar-year Grand Slam four years earlier, was still a few days from her 23rd birthday, while Seles, despite having won four of the last five majors, was just 19. Seles was No. 1 in the world, Graf No. 2; it had been two years since any other woman had won a major.
In the late 1980s, Steffi had looked unstoppable. She finished that decade by winning seven of the last majors, and in the 1988 French Open final she beat Natasha Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in 32 minutes. Few could have imagined that anyone tougher or better than Graf would come along anytime soon. Even fewer could have imagined that it would be a 99-pound 15-year-old who swung with two hands on both sides. But that’s what Seles was when she made her debut in 1988. By 1990, she had taken Graf’s French Open title; by ’91, she had taken her No. 1 ranking; by the spring of ’92, tennis fans were wondering if Seles, who was 4-0 in major finals, could be stopped.
For the first 30 minutes of this match, it didn’t look like Graf was going to be the one to slow her down. After a feeling-out process over the first few games, Seles gradually upped the pace on her baseball-swing strokes, and ran away with the first set. For years, it had been Graf’s opponents who had tried to find ways to disrupt her all-powerful game. Now the shoe was on the other foot. It was Graf who was forced to find ways—mixing spins and paces, keeping the ball low or high—to disrupt Seles’s ultra-solid two-fisted attack. In the second set, Graf succeeded. Using her serve as her primary weapon and trying to be the aggressor, she pushed her younger rival to a third set.
It turned out to be one for the ages—18 games and 91 minutes of fierce back and forth between two Hall-of-Famers at the peaks of their powers. On one side, Graf was steely and silent as she launched her ground strokes into the corners; on the other, Seles’s grunt grew louder and more desperate with each lunging retrieval she made. By now, Graf was dictating most of the rallies with her rifle forehand, and Seles was forced to run herself nearly to exhaustion to stay in the points. She was so tired, she said, that Graf’s shots seemed to be coming toward her in slow motion.
Graf made a specialty of winning these types of epics over the years. In 1987, she beat Martina Navratilova 8-6 in the third set in the French Open final; in 1991 she beat Gabriela Sabatini by the same score in the Wimbledon final; in 1993, she would come back from 1-4 down in the third set to beat Jana Novotna at Wimbledon; and in 1996 she would beat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 10-8 in the third to win Roland Garros. But on this day, she couldn’t crack Seles.
“She’s definitely a tough one,” Steffi said afterward.
While Seles was on the defensive in the rallies, she remained ahead on the scoreboard. She served for the match at 8-7, and held five match points. Graf came up with winning answers each time, but she couldn’t do it again on Seles’s sixth match point. Forced to redline her forehand, Steffi sent her last one into the net. Seles was too spent to celebrate.
“It’s the most emotional match I ever played,” Seles said, “not just in a Grand Slam, but in any tournament…It couldn’t have been a better final.”
As usual, there were no moral victories for Graf: “There is no satisfaction,” she said.
Nothing could stop Seles, it seemed, until that fateful, hideous day in Hamburg the following spring, when she was stabbed by Gunter Parche, forever to be known as a “deranged Steffi Graf fan.” Because of that, Graf and Seles would be linked in a way that no one expected or wanted. More than any other match between them, their 1992 French Open final shows us what we missed, and what the Rivalry That Should Have Been was like while it lasted.