Unseeded Champions of Roland Garros
May 28 6 min read12:47 pm
In tennis, a grand slam is a stage where 2000 points are on the line for a 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 the way for a number of lesser-known players to make a deep run 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 Roland Garros.
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 final to become the first ever unseeded tennis player to win the French Open. Scriven's remarkable run continued in Paris,successfully defending her title in 1934. 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.
Former World No.1 player and seven-time grand slam singles champion Mats Wilander was only 17 years old when he first played at Roland Garros in 1982. 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. Wilander had won the French Open juniors in 1981 and now found himself facing second seeded Ivan Lendl in the fourth round. Five sets later, Wilander shocked the tennis world by outlasting Lendl to progress to the quarter-finals where he would face fifth seed, Vitas Gerulaitis. It was yet another match where Wilander's stupendous performance saw him triumph 6-3 6-3 4-6 6-4. Yet another four-set 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 become the youngest player to win a major. He faced third seed Guillermo Vilas in the finals. 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.
In 1997, a 6-foot-3 Brazilian with just three career Grand Slam matches under his belt etched his name in the history books. Gustavo Kuerten had suffered first round exits at Barcelona, Monte-Carlo and Hamburg before winning a lowly Challenger tournament at Curitiba. However, after easing through his opening two matches, he found himself facing fifth seed Thomas Muster in the third round. In five extremely tough sets, Kuerten ousted Muster 6-7 6-1 6-3 3-6 6- 4. After another five-set victory in the fourth round, the Brazilian faced defending champion. Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals. Kuerten took the first set 6-2. But, Kafelnikov seized control by taking the next two sets. Kuerten played one of the best sets of his career and bagelled Kafelnikov to force a decider, which he took 6-4. He faced a qualifier Filip De Wulf in the semi-finals, winning in four sets to set up a final with 16th seed Sergi Bruguera. Kuerten was on top of his game and won his maiden slam final in straight sets. He 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 later, he found himself at the top of the rankings.
Gaston Gaudio entered the 2004 French Open ranked 44. He faced three Argentinians en route to 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.He entered the fourth round to face Igor Andreev who had defeated defending champion Juan Carlos Ferrero earlier in the tournament. From here on would never drop a set before the finals. In the quarter-finals he defeated 12th seed Lleyton Hewitt. In the semi-finals and finals he ousted two fellow Argentines to win the title. First he defeated David Nalbandian in straight sets to set up a showdown with 3rd seed Guillermo Coria in the finals. 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.
Jelena Ostapenko had never won a tour level title in her career when 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 straight sets and won a relatively easy 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 final, 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 and 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.