Saturday School: Unseeded champions of the Roland Garros

In tennis, a grand slam is a stage where 2000 points are on the line for a player field consisting of 128 players. In most cases, the seeded players have a better shot at the title. However, if a seeded player bows out early in the tournament, apart from losing a lot of points, he/she also paves a path for the unseeded players to collect some points in their bag and hop multiple spots on the rankings board.
In its rich history spanning across 127 years, there have been six occasions where an unseeded player has lifted the championship trophy at the Roland Garros.

1) Margaret Scriven

Peggy Scriven 1938.jpg
British player and former World No.5 Margaret Scriven was the first ever left handed woman to win a Grand Slam title. In 1933, Scriven defeated 4th seeded Hilde Krahwinkel, 5th seeded Mary Heeley in the quarter-finals and 3rd seeded Simonne Mathieu in the finals to become the first ever unseeded tennis player to win the Roland Garros. Scriven’s remarkable run continued at the French Open as she successfully defended her title in 1934, seeded second. The Brit’s title defense is the last instance where a British woman has won the same Grand Slam singles tournament two years in a row.

2) Mats Wilander

Former World No.1 player and seven-time grand slam singles champion Mats Wilander was only 17 years old when he played at the Roland Garros. It was only his third grand slam tournament that he entered. Bjorn Borg, the former World No.1 from Sweden was the defending champion but had not entered the tournament in 1982. Wilander had won the French Open as a junior in 1981 and now found himself facing second seeded Ivan Lendl in the fourth round itself. 5-sets late, Wilander shocked the tennis world with his win over Lendl and progressed into the quarter-finals where he would face fifth seed, Vitas Gerulaitis. It was yet another match where Wilander’s stupendous performance saw him triumph over Gerulaitis 6-3 6-3 4-6 6-4. Yet another 4-sets victory in the semi-finals over fourth seed Jose Luis Clerc meant that Wilander was just one match away from winning his maiden slam and the then youngest player to win a major. He faced third seed Guillermo Vilas in the finals.
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Vilas dominated the first set winning it 6-1. However, the young Swede won the next three sets 7-6 6-0 6-4 to win the French Open. At the World Fair Play awards, Wilander bagged the Pierre de Coubertin trophy. This was because Wilander was handed the Championship point in his favour but the chair umpire wasn’t too sure about it. Wilander asked for the point to be replayed and celebrated only after it was a clean and fair point.

3) Gustavo Kuerten

In 1997, a 6 feet 3 inch tall Brazilian won a Challenger tournament at Curitiba. Immediately, next week Gustavo Kuerten was supposed to play at the Roland Garros. Two wins later, he found himself facing fifth seed Thomas Muster. In five extremely grinding sets, Kuerten defeated Muster 6-7 6-1 6-3 3-6 6-4. After another five sets victory in the fourth round, Kuerten faced defendinf champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals. Kuerten took the first set 6-2. But, Kafelnikov recovered by winning two consecutive sets and it appeared as if the Russian won’t lose his rhythm now. Kuerten played one of the best sets of his career and bagelled Kafelnikov to force a decider. Kuerten won the match after winning the final set 6-4.
He faced a qualifier in the semi-finals and after winning the match in 4-sets, he faced sixteenth seed Sergi Bruguera. Kuerten was on top of his game and won his maiden slam final in straight sets. Kuerten would go on to win the Roland Garros two more times in 2000 and 2001. But the 1997 win was the most special one for Guga as he became the third lowest ranked player to win a slam. The Brazilian’s victory is also the only instance where a player has won a challenger and Grand Slam event in back-to-back weeks. Kuerten entered the Top 20 rankings following his 1997 French Open title. Three years hence, he found himself at the top of the rankings.

4) Gaston Gaudio

Gaston Gaudio entered the 2004 Roland Garros ranked 44. He faced three Argentinians en route his lone grand slam title. In the first round he defeated compatriot Guillermo Canas in five sets and again took five-sets against Jiri Novak in the second round to progress into the third round. He won in four-sets against Thomas Enqvist in the third round. He entered the fourth round to face Igor Andreev who had defeated defending champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in the second round. From here on would never drop a set before the finals. In the quarter-finals he defeated twelfth seed Lleyton Hewitt. In the semi-finals and finals he had to defeat two fellow Argentines to win the title. First he defeated David Nalbandian in straight sets and now had to face third seed Guillermo Coria in the finals.
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Before the tournament, Coria was a heavy favourite for the title. Coria dominated the first set and didn’t allow Gaudio to win a single game. He backed it up by winning the second set 6-3. Gaudio hustled his way back into the match, winning the next two sets 6-4 6-1. In the decider, Coria had championship points but squandered them, giving an extra life to Gaudio. Gaudio won the final set 8-6, making him the first man to win a slam final after losing the first set 6-0. He also became the first player in the open era to save match points in the final to win a grand slam. Gaudio entered the Top 10 rankings for the first time in his career and would never progress beyond the third round in a slam for the rest of his career.

5) Jelena Ostapenko

Jelena Ostapenko had never won a tour level title in her career and she lost the first set of her first round match against Louisa Chirico at the 2017 Roland Garros. Ostapenko would win two sets from behind to progress to the second round in order to face 2016 Rio Olympics Gold Medalist, Monica Puig. Ostapenko defeated Puig comprehensively in striaght sets and won a relatively easier match in the third round against Lesia Tsurenko 6-1, 6-4. She faced 2010 French Open finalist Sam Stosur in the fourth round. Ostapenko defeated the veteran Australian 2-6 6-2 6-4. Out of all the quarter-finalists, Ostapenko was the only unseeded player.
She defeated current World No.2 Caroline Wozniacki in three sets to enter the final four stage. The Latvian defeated Timea Bacsinszky 7-6 3-6 6-3 to face third seed and current World No.1, Simona Halep in the finals. Ostapenko smashed 54 winners in the finals, winning her first tour level title and maiden slam 4-6 6-4 6-3. She became the first ever Latvian (men or women) to win a grand slam title. She became the second woman to win a slam as a maiden tour level title. She is the lowest ranked woman (47th) to win a grand slam and the second after Margaret Scriven to win it unseeded. The Latvian is currently ranked No.5.
Being unseeded usually puts a player in that portion of the draw where he/she has to face seeded players in the initial rounds thereby making the challenge tougher from the first round itself. The arduous task of winning a slam being unseeded is one of the most rare sights in tennis which shows up in the most unexpected scenarios.

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