Welcome to French Open Flashbacks, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable narratives from Roland Garros over the past 20 years. After recapping Charleston's classics, Stuttgart's standards, Madrid’s magic moments, and Rome's records, our retrospective heads to the culmination of the clay season in Paris - beginning with the end of an era, Stefanie Graf's 22nd and final Grand Slam title in 1999.
THE MOMENT: Stefanie Graf's 1999 Roland Garros title run was iconic on several levels.
It was of superb quality, both in terms of the opposition the German faced and the tennis she brought to dispatch them: a rigorous first week saw Graf move past three current or former Top 20 players - Magdalena Maleeva, Ines Gorrochategui and Anna Kournikova - in straight sets before a triptych of dazzling three-setters over No.2 seed Lindsay Davenport 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-3, No.3 seed Monica Seles 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-4 and No.1 seed Martina Hingis 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. It was both historic and dramatic: the first time since the inception of computer rankings that anyone had defeated the Top 3 players in the world in one tournament and an extension of Graf's Open Era record of Grand Slam singles trophies to 22, capped with an electrifying final as the 30-year-old came from a set and a break down to deny Hingis her own Career Grand Slam amidst scenes of high emotion.
But most of all, it was vindication for a champion who admitted after defeating Seles that she had limited her expectations in Paris to getting "a few matches before Wimbledon", and that her motivation was simply to pick her own time to quit the game rather than be forced out by the injuries that hed beset her over the past few years. After all, at this point, the narrative around Graf was that she had been supplanted.
Exactly three years previously, her 1996 Roland Garros title had ensured that she stood alone as the Open Era record-holder for Grand Slam singles trophies, one ahead of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 19, and as though to underline her near-invincibility for much of the previous decade, that year also saw her add both Wimbledon and the US Open to take her total to 21, two ahead of Helen Wills on the all-time list.
But Graf's body was repeatedly beginning to betray her: multiple surgeries followed in 1997 and 1998, including a reconstructive knee operation that sidelined her between May 1997 and February 1998. Her form came back slowly and in fits and starts on her return. Three titles in 1998 - in New Haven, Leipzig and Philadelphia - helped raise her ranking from World No.91 in June 1998 to World No.6 in May 1999 - and she would split two classic encounters with a 17-year-old Serena Williams, the woman who would take her Grand Slam record 18 years later, in Sydney and Indian Wells in 1999.
In the meantime, though, Australian Open champion Hingis - already with five major titles under her belt at the age of 19 - and US Open champion Davenport had established themselves as the leaders of a new generation at the top of the game. Both had defeated Graf in 1999, Davenport in Sydney and Hingis in Tokyo, seemingly beginning to tilt head-to-heads previously dominated by Graf in their favor. Indeed, it wasn't just younger contenders that Graf had been losing to that year: the Australian Open quarterfinals had seen her fall to Seles for the first time in six years, and in her only clay warm-up, 28-year-old World No.21 Julie Halard-Decugis had overcome a 0-9 head-to-head to close out a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 upset in the Berlin quarterfinals.
In Graf's absolute prime, she would often give the impression of effortless domination. Combining elegance with athleticism, between the hammer blows of her forehand, the thousand cuts of her backhand slice and her lightning footspeed, opponents would often struggle to win points, let alone matches, as Graf sailed all too smoothly to the silverware week after week. But this fortnight, the woman who always aimed to fulfil her own personal standards of perfection above the world's record books showed a side of her tennis that is less often remarked upon: her grit and tenacity, showcased on the swirling terre battue as she battled through tempestuous situations.
THE MEANING: Holding the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen aloft proved to the world that the game had not passed Graf by. But it enabled the reverse. Graf's fairytale ending may not have come at her beloved Wimbledon, where it might have been expected - and where Davenport denied her in the final a month later - but it meant that she could walk away from the game on her own terms, as she had said she wanted to do. Two tournaments after Roland Garros, a pulled hamstring forced her to retire from her San Diego opener against Amy Frazier trailing 4-6, 7-5, 2-1 - and then to immediately retire from the game, citing a loss of motivation following her last hurrah.
It was a true mic drop moment: sudden and absolute in its finality, the decision of a player at complete peace with what they had achieved. There would be neither farewell tour nor comeback - indeed, Graf would all but retire from public life, not just tennis, as she disappeared contentedly into the privacy she had long craved, leaving only beautiful memories behind for her fans.