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Previewing the French Open; A Look at Past Winners

Aired May 30, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



PAT CASH, CNN HOST: We're in Paris for a grand slam edition of OPEN COURT.


CASH (voice-over): Coming up on the show, five French Open winners from the past five years. The champions reveal why another title is within reach.

It's the slam that got away for many of the greats. Why is Roland Garros so tough to win?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're a guy who grew up on clay courts. But you never really excelled at the French Open. Why is that?

CASH (voice-over): Come on!

Plus my faceoff with Nicolas Almagro takes a dramatic turn.

That hurt!


CASH: The French Open has been dominated for nearly a decade by one man: Rafa Nadal. This year he'll be trying to win his eighth title here in Paris. On the ladies' side, there's been a different winner just about every year. They come from Russia, Serbia, Italy and even China. They all have very different backgrounds, but they share the same trophy. Here's their story.


CASH (voice-over): Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, Maria Sharapova...

MARIA SHARAPOVA, FRENCH OPEN WINNER, WORLD NUMBER 2: I always thought of the French Open as a mysterious tournament where you find a champion that is maybe not exactly the favorite going into that event or not the ultimate pick for everyone. And maybe the underdog comes through a bit.

But that's obviously been the results of the past five years.

CASH (voice-over): Five women, five champions, each with great memories, each hoping the best is yet to come.

Ana Ivanovic is finding it tough to believe that five years have passed since she won the French Open.

ANA IVANOVIC, 2008 FRENCH OPEN WINNER: It's definitely been the highlight of my career so far. I'll never, ever forget that moment. You know, these things that French Open was a big dream of mine since I was a kid.

CASH (voice-over): It was also an exciting moment for Serbia. Over the past five years, the small nation has produced an elite group of tennis stars, including Ivanovic and world number 1 Novak Djokovic.

Ivanovic started playing on the clay courts of Belgrade. She begged her parents to take her to tennis school. Those early lessons paid off. Ivanovic has won 11 WTA titles and will soon pass the $10 million mark in prize money.

IVANOVIC: It's my decision and I love the game and I still feel fit and young to play. And I have, I think, game to win big events.

CASH (voice-over): Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova won the French Open in 2009.

SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA, 2009 FRENCH OPEN WINNER: To play (inaudible) something special, which you will never forget in your life.

CASH (voice-over): She beat her rival and compatriot Dinara Safina and claimed the second grand slam of her career. There is one part of the trophy ceremony that she'd like to retry.

KUZNETSOVA: When you start to single out who you have to thank, and I forgot that time to thank my parents. It was like huge mistake. They were so upset with me for that.

CASH (voice-over): But there's no looking back for Kuznetsova. She's won nearly $17 million in prize money and found success on multiple surfaces.

KUZNETSOVA: In the national (inaudible). She's just -- don't spend any money and time on her. But when I came to Spain, everybody's, oh, she's so good. She's going to (inaudible).

CASH (voice-over): Legend Martina Navratilova spotted her potential in 2003 and tracked down the young star.

KUZNETSOVA: It's time to play. We'll play it one year. She was very hard on me, but I was also very young and (inaudible) I was a little bit late, a little bit like fat and also she was pushing all the time. I learned so many things from her.

CASH (voice-over): Kuznetsova will put her wealth of experience to the test when she returns to Roland Garros.

In 2010, Francesca Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever win the French Open.

FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE, 2010 FRENCH OPEN WINNER: I think big for everybody, not just for me, but and support the people that was working with me and stay with me and my dad and my mama, my friends. Everybody worked. Me, me, too. We were shocked.

CASH (voice-over): She had no idea how close the Italians followed her historic grand slam run.

SCHIAVONE: When I was working, a woman at almost 70 years old, something I did. She stopped me and she said, "Francesca, you know what? I was cooking for my little kids. And I saw the television. And I say then, 'Tonight, today we eat pizza because I don't want to cook anymore. I want to see this match, because there is Francesca.'"

CASH (voice-over): After a frustrating 2012, Schiavone's ranking dropped. The early round losses left her down but not out.

SCHIAVONE: It was a tough, tough year last year. So I look in my -- the mirror and I say, Franchi (ph), what do you want to do? You want to keep going? What you like? Can I do it again?

CASH (voice-over): The 32-year old is confident she can do it again. And just last month, she was back on the clay, winning her sixth WTA title in Morocco.

Li Na's dream came true when she became the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles title. She told me how her instant stardom caught her off guard.

LI NA, 2011 FRENCH OPEN WINNER: Just right after French Open, I was being in a restaurant. You know, (inaudible) VIP room, so like (inaudible) room. Every time the server was different people, that they wanted to see me, yes. And when I was out of the para (ph) room, they said, "Oh, Li Na, she's eating." And I was like, "Yes, of course, I have to eat."

CASH (voice-over): Friends have warmed to Li Na's vibrant personality and one-liners. She was recently named one of the most influential people in the world.

LI: I was really, really surprised when I saw they'd put my picture in the front of the page. I was like, "Who's that?" Like, you know, the hair was everywhere doing the forehand. I was like, "Mmm, pretty close."

CASH (voice-over): Li Na got very close to winning a second grand slam in January when she pushed Victoria Azarenka to a deciding set in the Australian Open. The 31-year old knows there's no time to waste as her career winds down.

CASH: When you finish, when you retire, is there anything that you would like to do?

LI: Housewife.

CASH: Housewife? Yes?


LI: Because my husband was keep up everything, just trying with me. So I was feeling after retire, I have to do something for him.

CASH (voice-over): But retirement will have to wait for now. Li Na is focused on bringing home another grand slam title.

Reigning French Open champion Maria Sharapova is clearly in the driver's seat, focused on defending her first-ever Roland Garros crown. The world number 2 had always struggled on the clay until she found her footing a year ago and breezed to the title.

SHARAPOVA: I do enjoy it a little bit more now, just because I feel like I worked on that aspect of my game and I really and truly have been -- now I feel like I don't have any excuses when I get to the court and when I'm moving around, like just because I don't feel great on one day I can't, you know, I can't really whine about it because at the end of the day, I did (inaudible).


SHARAPOVA: So I have to remind myself that at time.

CASH (voice-over): The French Open win kicked off a banner year that saw Sharapova briefly regain the world number 1 ranking with a silver medal for Russia at the London Olympics and been named "Forbes" most successful female athlete.

SHARAPOVA: I do make great money for a living and if I didn't want to play tennis again, I'd have enough money to live for the rest of my life. But I do respect the money that I've made because I didn't grow up having a lot of money. It's so important to be able to look back on those days and think I really came from nothing. We had a dream and I had a talent and we moved to the United States.

CASH (voice-over): Her hard work paid off when she stunned the world and won Wimbledon in 2004. Grand slam titles followed at the U.S. Open in 2006 and Australian Open in 2008. But in 2012, Sharapova won the French Open and completed a career slam.

SHARAPOVA: I don't know if it's lucky or if it's just being -- fell into place that the four grand slams I won were all four of them that were different. You know, who knows what the future will bring me. And who knows what I may add to that list. But so far, I can say that, yes, I'm pretty fortunate to be one of the few that has achieved that.



CASH (voice-over): We've set up an interactive display of the French Open champions on our website.

Still to come on OPEN COURT, Nicolas Almagro invited me to Madrid for a duel in the dirt. See how I fared against one of the most lethal backhands in the game.

CASH: You didn't get that on camera, did you?




CASH (voice-over): Rafa Nadal, the king of clay, has only lost once during his entire career at Roland Garros. Court Philippe Chatrier is turning into the House that Rafa Built. He's won seven French Open titles here, more than any other male player in history.

CASH: Now is the perfect opportunity to tell you about my glory days here at Roland Garros. Unfortunately, there weren't that many highlights and it's fair to say I didn't get the results I wanted to at the French Open.

But as Frederik Pleitgen tells us, I'm not the only one.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe -- what do these tennis legends all have in common?

They won every grand slam trophy except the French Open.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): I traveled to Leiman, Germany, to meet up with Boris Becker in his hometown to find out why.

We met at the club where he hit his first tennis ball.

PLEITGEN: There's one thing I've always wanted to ask you, is that you're a guy who grew up on clay courts, but you never really excelled at the French Open. Did you -- why is that?

BORIS BECKER, SIX-TIME GRAND SLAM CHAMPION: Put my style of play and I was an attacking player; I was (inaudible) player and that's not perfect on the clay. (Inaudible) big and heavier than some of the other players. And on clay, you know, you slide around and your defensive strategy has to be better than the offensive. So on clay, you play more defensive. But --


PLEITGEN: And yet you grew up here. So you must have been quite comfortable, though, on clay courts.

BECKER: Yes, (inaudible).

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, you would be probably, in your sleep, if they woke up you at 3:00 in the morning.

BECKER: But compared to my success on the other grand slams, French was always (inaudible).

PLEITGEN (voice-over): During his playing days, Becker's rival was Stefan Edberg.

The Swede came very close to winning the French Open but was upset by 17-year-old wunderkind Michael Chang.

STEFAN EDBERG, SIX-TIME GRAND SLAM CHAMPION: I think we all tried to win the French Open and we all tried to compare the best way we could. And obviously I had a great chance in '89, where I was playing a young kid, Michael, in the final. There was a match that -- maybe that I should have won. I was in the lead and had him.

But somehow I got -- he got out of the grip and he won it, five sets. But at the time, I thought I played a great tournament and I thought I would get another chance to win it. But I never really got another chance after that.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Edberg can still play and entertain a crowd, like he did here in Stuttgart. His serve and volley tennis is still popular but it doesn't always translate well to the clay court.

EDBERG: In playing, so, you know, serving volley for two weeks, that was the tough part of it to play really well for two weeks on the clay. And that's what you need at the French Open.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Pete Sampras won 14 grand slam titles but did not win the French Open. His serve and volley skills that kept the American at number 1 for six years, got lost in translation at Roland Garros. He never reached a final.

PETE SAMPRAS, 14-TIME GRAND SLAM CHAMPION: Until I got to do better. I look back at my time. Maybe tried a bigger racket at the French, you know, it helped out a little bit. And I could have worked a little harder. I mean, I worked hard but you know, you always look back at your career and you feel, I should have done this or done that. I mean, I have no regrets.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): No visit to Leimen is complete without a visit to Boris Becker's mother's home.

A glass cabinet sits in the middle of the living room. These are all overflowing with hardware from Becker's boom-boom playing days.

BECKER: The U.S. Open, I had one final and I won and I can't complain. Australian Open, I had two finals; I won both. The World Championships, I was in seven finals. I won four. It's OK. French Open, never. Never final. Three times a semifinalist but (inaudible) Andre Agassi (inaudible) better. It wasn't unlucky or so on. They were better.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Three all-time greats, 26 slams between them, but one trophy missing.


CASH: World number 1 Novak Djokovic has also won every major tennis event except the French Open. He's aiming to complete his resume this year. And whilst it's hard not to pick Nadal for the title, it's fair to say the Serbian's style is getting closer all the time. But Nadal isn't the only Spaniard Novak has to worry about.



CASH (voice-over): The depth in Spanish tennis is unrivaled. There are currently 12 male players in the top 100. Rafa Nadal leads the pack but there is a talented Spaniard emerging from the shadows.


CASH (voice-over): Nicolas Almagro is ready to make a splash on tour.


CASH: You are number 3 Spanish player. Being in the top 10 and you're number 12 in the world. In any -- almost any other country, you would be a superstar. But you have Nadal and Ferrer, is it good?


NICOLAS ALMAGRO, WORLD NUMBER 12: I'm very happy to be a Spaniard. If I am honest, Rafa Nadal is one of the best players of the world. He is -- they are doing really good. And well, everything I can do is work a lot to be like them.

What I'm going to do, two crosses and one down the line.


CASH: Ai, yi, yi.

ALMAGRO: Are you OK?

CASH: Tell me about your family. Did your family miss you? You're always traveling.

ALMAGRO: I think I miss my family more than them (inaudible).


ALMAGRO: It's the most important part of my life. My fans, for me, are at the best barring that I can have my brothers. They buy me my first racket and I think I made sure that between that, (inaudible) be a tennis player's son and well. I am that range.


CASH: Come on, Nico. I can get this. (Inaudible). Come on.


Come on!

ALMAGRO: I'm in.

CASH: Come on!

ALMAGRO: (Inaudible).

CASH: You didn't get that on camera, did you?


CASH: Nadal has stopped you three times in the French Open. I think you're one of the outside favorites.

What happens if you meet him this time?

ALMAGRO: Nadal is the beast. You want to be in a semifinal (inaudible), you need to be focused for hours. And that's the place. And that's the key of that we are working that.

CASH: He's the beast, but you're the Bison.

ALMAGRO: Yes, yes --

CASH: The bison is --

ALMAGRO: -- we had a really nice battle again, but well, you want to be on one of the quarterfinals in French Open you need to win five matches. And that's nice. But well, I want to fight for that. And we'll see what happens.

CASH: Thank you, my friend.

ALMAGRO: Thank you. I'm very prepared to meet you.

CASH: I really feel really old now.


CASH: The speed is -- it's not as --

ALMAGRO: It's a little bit different.

CASH: It's a little bit different.


CASH: Thank you.

ALMAGRO: Thank you.


CASH: Well, I really enjoyed my time at the Madrid Open and my chance to get on court with Nicolas. With that sort of power, he's going to be a real threat.

Still to come on OPEN COURT...


CASH (voice-over): Wherever Suzanne Lenglen went, a trail of gossip and rumor followed closely behind. Her story after the break.




CASH: When I think of French players, I think of flair and personality. And Suzanne Lenglen is the epitome of both. I've walked past her statue many times here at Roland Garros. I've even played on the court named after her.

But I've always wanted to know her story.



CASH (voice-over): Once in a lifetime, there's an athlete that changes her sport. Suzanne Lenglen did just that in the 1920s. The French tennis sensation was in a class all by herself, transforming a country club sport into the hottest ticket in France.

PATRICK CLASTRES, SPORTS HISTORIAN, SORBONNE UNIVERSITY: If you want you may take a look at Suzanne Lenglen, I think you must be here, between the baseline and the net. I think here is the best place, you know. You can see her fast running, her jumps and all the photographers are -- I think they were here, just taking (inaudible) the picture.

CASH (voice-over): She won eight grand slams, singles titles and an Olympic gold medal. Her repertoire of backhands and forehands sometimes look more like a dance performance than a tennis match.

CLASTRES: She was running very quickly and jumping to the net and sometimes with a lob she was jumping very high with her running clothes to her face and sometimes her feet above her head.

CASH (voice-over): Lenglen wasn't just a superior tennis player. She was also a daring trendsetter. She arrived for matches wearing a silk dress and wrapped in a fur coat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was famed Suzanne Lenglen who led a style revolt after World War I. She served up a costume that made the game more interesting.

CASH (voice-over): French fashionistas attended Lenglen's matches, hoping for a glimpse at her latest styles.

CLASTRES: She wore some skirts with her nude arms. It was a revolution. She was very free.

CASH (voice-over): Besides giving the media plenty to write about, Lenglen also became the first world number 1 in the history of women's tennis. Men actually paid to attend her matches, unheard of at the time. She further courted controversy by turning professional.

But in 1938, just weeks after she was diagnosed with leukemia, Lenglen died. She was just 39.


CASH (voice-over): Parisians have maintained her legacy, though. A Metro stop bears her name and so does the Sport and Culture Centre she founded. But the ultimate honor came decades later, when the second show court at Roland Garros was named in her memory.


CASH: Thanks for joining us on this special grand slam edition of OPEN COURT. Next month, we turn to Wimbledon, where we will catch up with the most successful wild card in history, Goran Ivanisevic.

But before we leave Paris, I'd like to take a moment to pay tribute to a friend, Australian Davis Cup teammate and ATP chairman Brad Drewett, who died earlier this month.


CASH (voice-over): After retiring from the tour, he became a much- loved executive at the ATP. He was extremely popular amongst his players, who paused to pay their respects at the Madrid Open. In his short time as chairman, Brad implemented major changes that will benefit men's tennis for years to come. He will be missed.