These players claimed the Roland Garros title against all the odds.
Tennis is one of the most unpredictable sports in the world. It has a habit of surprising audiences quite frequently and bringing several lesser-known faces into the limelight. The French Open is one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the sporting calendar.
The ongoing edition of Roland Garros has been one full of twists and turns. Several top-seeded players have exited the tournament even before the quarter-finals. This increases the possibility of an unlikely winner in Paris this year, who might join an exclusive list of unheralded names to triumph in the famous clay court event.
We take a look at five players who despite being underdogs overcame all the odds to surprise everyone and claim an unlikely French Open crown:
5. Michael Chang
Michael Chang arrived at the 1989 French Open as the No. 15 seed and No. 19-ranked player in the world. But, most importantly, Chang was just 17 years and 109 days old. The American had not gone past the semi-finals in any major tournament, so everybody thought that the teenager wouldn’t pose much of a threat.
Chang’s fourth-round match versus then World No. 1 Ivan Lendl is considered one of the most memorable matches ever to be played. Lendl was in imperious form back then and went onto become one of the greatest players of that era.
Lendl comfortably won the first two sets 6-4, 6-4 and it seemed Chang would make his expected exit. However, the American managed to win the third set 6-3 and Lendl started to become agitated. Chang meanwhile claimed the fourth set but began cramping. By the third game of the fifth set, the American could barely move. He was leading 2-1 in the deciding set when he began walking towards the umpire’s chair with the intention of retiring from the match. But, he changed his mind and decided to continue. The teenager eventually went onto win the match 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
Chang then defeated Ronald Agenor and Andrei Chesnokov to reach the final. He faced World No. 3 Stefan Edberg in the final, where he rallied from being a break down in the fourth set after losing two of the first three sets, to complete an unlikely triumph. Chang remains the youngest man in history to win a Grand Slam.
4. Gaston Gaudio
Ranked 44th in the world, Gaston Gaudio came into the 2004 French Open as an unseeded player. He had never advanced past the fourth round in any of his 20 previous Grand Slam appearances and had been past the third round just once.
The Argentine won five-set matches in the first two rounds, the second coming versus 14th-ranked Jiri Novak. He then got past Thomas Enqvist and Igor Andreev in his next two matches, before facing former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the quarters. Gaudio made 19 unforced errors to Hewitt’s 43 in a straight-sets victory.
Next up for him was a countryman and World No. 8 David Nalbandian in the semi-final. He defeated his compatriot 6-3, 7-6, 6-0. He wasn’t finished there. Gaudio faced another Argentine in Guillermo Coria in the title decider. Coria steamrolled him 6-0, 6-3 in the first two sets. But, just when Gaudio’s dream run seemed to be ending, Coria developed cramps. His cramps eased in the fifth set and he had two match points in the 12th game, but failed to convert either. Gaudio won the final three games and the match.
The Argentine played in 34 Grand Slam singles tournaments in his career and the 2004 French Open remains his only triumph. Infact, he never progressed even as far as the quarterfinals after that.
3. Iga Swiatek
It might be hard to believe that the current World No. 9 and defending French Open champion features in this list. However, her triumph last year was definitely not in the script. Entering the rescheduled French Open, Iga Swiatek was ranked 54 in the world. She hadn’t won a single event on the WTA tour prior to that.
Swiatek defeated 2019 runner-up and World No. 19 Marketa Vondrousova in the opening round. This was followed by an upset victory in the fourth round over top seed and World No. 2 Simona Halep, who was on a 17-match winning run and a heavy favourite to win the title. Swiatek then defeated World No. 6 Sofia Kenin in the final to become the first-ever Polish player to win a Grand Slam singles title and the lowest-ranked French Open champion in history.
The Pole also became the youngest singles champion at the tournament since Rafael Nadal in 2005 and the youngest women’s singles winner since Monica Seles in 1992. Currently, she is one of the favourites to lift the crown,
2. Gustavo Kuerten
Quite simply Gustavo Kuerten was a nobody when he took part in the 1997 French Open. The Brazilian was ranked 66 in the world, but became a star over the next two weeks. Kuerten dropped the first sets to No. 5 Thomas Muster and 20th-ranked Andrei Medvedev in his first two matches, before claiming victory in the fifth set.
In the quarterfinals, the 20-year-old was down two sets to one against No. 3 and defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Kuerten won the last two sets 6-0, 6-4 to go through. He received a walkover in the semi-finals to setup a final date with Sergei Bruguera. Bruguera had won the Roland Garros title twice before. But, Kuerten simply bulldozed him on the way to winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in less than two hours.
The Brazilian remains the lowest-ranked player in the Open Era to win a French Open crown and he did it by beating three former champions along the way. His prize money for winning the French Open was nearly five times his total career earnings to that point.
1. Jelena Ostapenko
Little did anyone think that someone from the Northern European nation of Latvia would take the tennis world by storm. Jelena Ostapenko did just that at the 2017 French Open. Ranked 47th in the world, she defeated some big names along the way, which included Louisa Chirico, Lesia Tsurenko, Samantha Stosur and reigning Olympic Gold-medalist Monica Puig.
Ostapenko then faced Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals. She came from a set down to defeat her, reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final. Timea Bacsinszky was her opponent in the semis, on the occasion of both players’ birthday. She beat Bacsinszky in three sets to reach the final, being the first unseeded female player to play in the final of the French Open since Mima Jausovec in 1983. In the final against the much-fancied Simona Halep, Ostapenko came back from being down a set and 3-0 to win her first professional title.
She became the first Latvian player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament and the first unseeded woman to win the French Open since 1933. Ostapenko also became the first player since Gustavo Kuerten to win his or her first career title at a Grand Slam tournament.