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Clay court

The most unlikely French Open champions


Not a week goes by when someone or other heralds the current era as a golden age for men’s tennis. The top four are dominating the game in a way perhaps never seen before. Of course, a grand slam winner is by definition a champion, but perhaps some are more champion than others. Here’s the second part in our slightly cruel but well-meaning look back at the “most unlikely” grand slam champions of the Open era.

The unlikely French Open champions.

The men:

Gaston Gaudio (2004)
Don’t take our word from it. Not long after his remarkable victory over Guillermo Coria in the final, Gaudio reportedly said: “I must be the worst grand slam winner ever”. The Argentine beat Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian before coming from two sets down to beat Coria. But he always thought of himself as a bit of an imposter. He never got past the fourth round of another slam and quietly retired in 2011.

Albert Costa (2002)
Like Gaudio, Costa possessed a lovely one-handed backhand but was always seen as a bit of an also-ran to the big guns. The Spaniard was a fine player but his semi-final run in 2003 was his only other appearance in the last four at a grand slam event. Lacked the power to be a consistent threat away from the clay but deserved his day in the sun, helped, albeit, by a Juan Carlos Ferrero who froze on the day.

Mats Wilander (1982)
Ok, so Wilander went on to be a great player, with six more grand slam titles to his name. But in 1982, the 17-year-old had not even won a tournament on the main tour before arriving at Roland Garros, only to go on to beat Ivan Lendl, Vitus Gerulaitis, Jose-Luis Clerc and Guillermo Vilas to take the title. As unlikely winners go, he was right up there.

The women:

Francesca Schiavone (2010)
Until her equally surprising and fabulous win at Roland Garros two years ago, Schiavone was what you might kindly call a journey-woman. Arriving in Paris she had never been beyond the quarter-finals of a grand slam and yet she danced, diced and sliced her way to the title, beating a shell-shocked Sam Stosur in the final. Italy went crazy. She even reached the final the following year.

Iva Majoli (1997)
This was supposed to be the year for Martina Hingis. The Swiss had won everything else already and was a massive favourite but on the big day Majoli was the calmer and out-hit the top seed to take her only grand slam win. The tall Croat reached the quarters in Paris on three other occasions but only made it past round three once at the other three slams.

Sue Barker (1976)
What could be more surprising than a Briton winning the French Open? Unusually, Barker was always more comfortable on clay than grass (unlike most Brits at the time) and she actually went into Paris on the back of recent three clay-court titles. Her big stroke of luck was the absence of Chris Evert that year but she held her nerve and won the title. She reached three other slam semi-finals but her career tailed off soon after.


  • Friend

    What about Myskina? I think she is the most unlikely.

    • TennisFan


  • Mauricio

    Gustavo Kuerten anyone?

    • Ian

      One of the greatest clay court players of all time? In what way unlikely…?