This week we take a look at the greatest male players who never won the French Open championships. (We also have a list of the best female players to never conquer the event.) Red clay has been the most challenging surface for grass and hard-court specialists since the Open Era began in 1968.
Best Male Players Who Never Won the French Open
Jimmy Connors was the first high profile player not to win at Roland Garros.
Connors made four semifinals: in 1979, 1980, 1984 and 1985, plus four quarterfinals, so a very decent record. Connors never won an event on European red clay; he made the final of Monte Carlo in 1981 but that was annulled due to bad weather. The American did win titles on green clay, however, including the US Open in 1975. Connors also won in Indianapolis and Cincinnati before the switch to hard-courts in the early 1980s.
Connors was also banned from the 1974 French Open because he signed up to play World Team Tennis. That year Connors won the other three Majors. Who knows what would have been possible if he played the French Open?
Connors found it difficult to make the transition from hard-courts to red clay. His strokes were extremely flat with not much loop. This style was not conducive to red clay during the transition from wood to steel to stiff graphite racquets.
John McEnroe was one of the fabled attacking players who couldn’t quite pull off the big win at the French Open. During the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of tennis fans wanted to see an attacking player win the French Open, but it wasn’t to be.
McEnroe came the closest, reaching the final in 1984 and establishing a two-set lead over arch rival Ivan Lendl. Maybe the occasion got to McEnroe as in the third set he started picking arguments courtside with cameramen. This led to a slight unravelling and Lendl was able to take advantage, eventually winning in five sets for his first major title. From that match their careers’ would go in different directions. Even if McEnroe gained revenge in the Wimbledon semifinal and US Open final later that summer.
However, Lendl would take McEnroe out in the 1985 French Open semifinal, proving McEnroe’s last good result there. McEnroe never modified his game for clay; he continued to serve volley, chip charge and take the ball early from the baseline. Like Connors, McEnroe won no titles on red clay but won four titles on green clay in the United States. It would be crazy if McEnroe’s only red clay title was the biggest one of all, but in the end just missed out.
A pattern here. Becker was another attacking player who was unable to win a clay court tournament in his career. He did make finals, like Monte Carlo in 1995 where he had match point against Thomas Muster but was unable to see it through. Becker also got heavily beaten by Pete Sampras in the 1994 Italian Open final.
In the French Open, Becker made three semi-finals so again a respectable record. He lost to Mats Wilander in 1987, Stefan Edberg in five sets in 1989 and Andre Agassi in 1991. There is no profound reason why Becker couldn’t have won either the French Open or even a clay court tournament. His serve was good, he liked to stay back and mix up his game. Becker’s groundstrokes were good with an excellent backhand return of serve but his movement wasn’t quite the very best at the top level. However, on clay that shouldn’t be such an issue as everyone has more time on the ball. It just didn’t happen for Becker at the French Open and on clay in general.
Edberg was another specialist attacking player. Edberg made the final in 1989 and was two sets to one up against Michael Chang but was unable to finish the job. Similar to McEnroe, Edberg did not compromise his game for clay, coming to net as often as he could.
Besides Edberg’s final appearance in 1989, he also won clay titles in Hamburg and Stockholm, Hamburg then a Tier 1 (Masters 1000) level tournament. Edberg had a few things going for him on clay; his movement was among the very best in the game at the time. His kick serve into the backhand body area was a real strength. Edberg’s backcourt game was interesting; he exclusively used a continental grip which made his forehand look unorthodox to say the least but it was solid.
Meanwhile, Edberg’s backhand was one of the best of the Open Era. He used it to come over with topspin or with slice to attack the net, a thing of beauty. Edberg can count himself unlucky he was unable to win the French Open at some stage in his career.
Pete Sampras is the most talked about player who never won the French Open. Due to the fact he was so dominant on other surfaces–including grass, hard-courts, and indoors (carpet and hard-court). However, he was unable to transition his dominance to red clay and the French Open.
Sampras’ career at Roland Garros can be looked at in two halves. In the first half from 1991 to 1996, he made three quarterfinals and a semifinal. In 1996 he defeated former champions like Sergei Brugera and Jim Courier before losing to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semifinal. Sampras had an opportunity to hold all four Major titles at the same time in 1994, but lost to Courier in four sets in the quarterfinal. Another highlight came in 1991 where Sampras came from two sets down to beat Thomas Muster in five sets in the second round.
However, from 1997 through 2002 (the second half), Sampras had a dreadful time, surprisingly not getting beyond the third round on any occasion. During this period Sampras lost his confidence on clay while playing a less patient game in general, which became a toxic mix for him.
Sampras won three clay titles–Kitzbuhel in 1992, the Italian Open in 1994, and Atlanta in 1998 on green clay. Sampras also won the Davis cup on indoor clay against Russia in 1995, which is one of his best achievements, winning all three rubbers. Therefore, in his earlier years Sampras could play on clay even if it wasn’t his strongest surface.
So, what went wrong? Well Sampras wasn’t sure whether to stay back and rally, or attack relentlessly like Edberg and McEnroe; consequently he didn’t do enough of either. His sliding on clay was also not the best and in the end his opponents took advantage, draining his confidence. Sampras had the ability to win the French Open, but not the discipline or belief.
Andy Murray is an interesting player when it comes to clay. Murray trained as a junior in Valencia, Spain. However, as Murray emerged on the ATP tour in 2005, grass and hard-courts would become his strongest surfaces.
Even so, Murray has a good record on clay. He made the French Open final in 2016 and the semifinals in 2011, 2015, and 2017. Like every other competitor, getting past Rafael Nadal has been virtually impossible, but Murray did have an opportunity in 2016. Murray played Djokovic in the final but lost fairly comfortably in four sets, allowing Djokovic to claim a career Slam.
Away from the French Open, Murray won the Madrid Open and Bavarian Championships in 2015, plus the Italian Open in 2016. Murray beat Nadal in Madrid and Djokovic in Rome, which are great victories. Murray also won the Davis cup with Great Britain in 2015 on indoor clay against Belgium, Britain’s first victory since 1936!
Murray’s strengths are considerable, but so are his weaknesses. His strengths include his movement and first serve. His liability is no doubt his second serve which is slow and often drops in the middle of the service box. Murray’s second serve has been too attackable in the matches that matter most, semi-finals and finals against the very best players in the world.
Other World #1 players who didn’t win the French Open are Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, and Marcelo Rios. None of these players made much of an impression over an extended period. Proving that to win the French Open you need more than just a good baseline game.
Main Photo from Getty.