Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov reached the top of the FedEx ATP Rankings on 3 May 1999, becoming the first Russian to accomplish the feat. Three weeks later, he was the top seed at Roland Garros, where he became the first man from his country to win a Grand Slam title in 1996.
Kafelnikov didn’t enter the event in his best form. After winning the Australian Open and Rotterdam earlier that year, he didn’t reach another final. Facing 1989 champion and 1995 finalist Michael Chang in the first round certainly didn’t help.
Although he doesn’t recall the moment he saw that year’s Roland Garros draw, he knew Chang wasn’t the only issue. He saw one player who always gave him nightmares — Dominik Hrbaty — potentially lurking in the second round.
“If I’m looking at the draw and see Hrbaty on the way I’m going, ‘Oh my God! How can I avoid this guy?’” Kafelnikov told ATPTour.com. “Dominik would lose to anybody, but when he played against me, he always brought his best game. That was really painful for me.”
Kafelnikov battled past Chang in four tough sets in his opener, and Hrbaty defeated home favourite Julien Boutter in a tight four-setter, so the Russian’s nightmare was going to become a reality. The pair had previously met twice, with Kafelnikov only winning one set.
“Dominik is a player who had all the answers to my game,” Kafelnikov said. “Thomas Johannson and Hrbaty were two of my nemeses who I couldn’t figure out how to beat them, comfortably.”
Even so, a one-sided match in favour of Hrbaty didn’t seem likely. Yet the Slovakian rolled past the favourite 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.
“I was the No. 1 player in the world at the time, but Dominik’s game was such a solid game that he had every answer to all my shots,” Kafelnikov said. “If I was hitting the ball hard, the ball was coming back twice as hard. That stuff was driving me nuts. Those two players [Hrbaty and Johansson] read my game so well.”
Kafelnikov at times appeared frustrated, double faulting to end the second set, which only took 23 minutes. But he continued to fight.
Hrbaty broke early in the third set, but the Russian levelled the set at 3-3. Hrbaty’s pressure was relentless, breaking for 5-3 by lacing a backhand passing shot up the line, giving himself an opportunity to serve for the match. Kafelnikov remained mentally engaged, breaking back once more when Hrbaty missed a forehand volley wide.
But the Slovakian wouldn’t be denied, clinching the match after one hour and 47 minutes when Kafelnikov mishit his trusty two-handed backhand well out.
“Before the match I was thinking I could beat him because I beat him two times before,” Hrbaty said in a television interview right after the match. “All the match I was just confident I was going to beat him.”
The upset spurred the best Grand Slam run of Hrbaty’s career. The Slovakian, who won his second ATP Tour title in Prague a month before Roland Garros, beat Andrew Ilie, Marat Safin and former World No. 1 Marcelo Rios to reach his lone major semi-final.
The only man who was able to stop Hrbaty was Andre Agassi, who eventually lifted the trophy. All of it was possible because of Hrbaty’s stunning performance against Kafelnikov.