French Open final 1984: A look back at one of the greatest matches ever played at Roland Garros
Every player would have played a match at some point of their career where they felt like they were giving everything they could, but still came away with a loss. A player and a legend like John McEnroe had to face this too once, in a match that happened to be the final of the 1984 French Open - against Ivan Lendl.
The year 1984 was special for McEnroe as he had a winning streak of 42 matches coming into Roland Garros. By the time the season had ended, he had amassed a win-loss record of 82-3, which is still the best by any player in the Open Era.
After his arch-rival Bjorn Borg had announced his retirement from tennis, McEnroe had to face the next generation of talents like Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Lendl, and was successful in defeating them as well. But this French Open final was different. To quote McEnroe himself:
"It was the worst loss of my life. Sometimes it still keeps me up at night. It was the only match where I felt I was playing up to my capabilities and lost."
It sounds surprising to see such words coming from a personality like McEnroe. That makes you wonder just how magical Lendl must have been to defeat McEnroe playing at his best.
First things first, clay was McEnroe's leas favorite surface; he never reached the French Open final apart from 1984. His serve and volley style wasn't designed for slow red dirt, and that showed in his results.
But on this day, McEnroe looked invincible with his attacking tennis and razor-sharp net play. He was all over Lendl before the Czech could even settle into the match, and he took the first set 6-3.
The same pattern continued in the second set as well as the American won it set 6-2, getting to within one set of the title. But he hadn't accounted for Lendl's resilience.
The third set was when the Czech started to find the angles, especially while returning serve. Once Lendl was able to get into the points on McEnroe's serve, things started to get a little better for him - especially considering his strong baseline game.
McEnroe was still winning plenty of points with his drop shots and lobs. So Lendl slowly started to come forward on his own terms, mixing up his game to suit McEnroe's. This tactic worked; there were a couple of breaks exchanged between the two but Lendl's game grew stronger as he broke McEnroe's serve decisively to take the third set 6-4.
It looked as if Lendl had found the solution to his woes. With the confidence from the third set, his groundstrokes became much more accurate and he was able to find great angles on his cross-court backhand.
The fourth set went neck-to-neck, but by the end of it the errors started flowing more freely from McEnroe. This created enough room for Lendl to take the set 7-5.
McEnroe truly started to feel the heat in the fifth set. He did continue fighting, but ended up losing the set and with it the match.
Lendl was 24 back then, and this was his first Major singles title. Later that year at the US Open, McEnroe took revenge for this defeat and won title to end the season as World No. 1.
Having a dip in form is a common thing in every sport, but not being able to win even after playing to your full potential is the worst nightmare for any tennis player. And yet every great player has faced that at some point or the other, and McEnroe's loss in this case was Lendl's gain.