Since 1987, when Steffi Graf won her first Grand Slam title at the Roland Garros, the German tennis legend won at least one of the four majors each year till 1996 and twice came fell short of repeating her Golden Slam feat of 1988.
But a spate of back and knee injuries hampered her journey from the start of 1997 as she went two years without a major crown. And though she maintained her place in the world top-10, Graf was being looked at as a spent force.
However, the German legend had one ace up her sleeves as she dug in for her 22nd major title at the 1999 French Open before announcing her retirement in August that year.
The rise of the young brigade led by Martina Hingis had already started to challenge the established order for the major titles with the Swiss miss announcing her arrival with three Grand Slam crowns in 1997. The only title that had evaded her that year was the French Open and she looked primed to get her hands on the Suzanne Lenglen Cup after reaching the 1999 edition final without dropping a set.
On the other hand, Graf was made to work hard by Anna Kournikova in the fourth round and came back from a set down to beat Monica Seles in the semi-finals and one wondered whether she had enough left in the tank to challenge Hingis in the summit clash.
The fears of her fans began to come true when Hingis began the final in her trademark attacking style, winning the opening set 6-4 and taking a 2-0 lead in the second.
But on the first point of the third game, her forehand service return was called out and an agitated Hingis walked over the other side of the court to protest after the chair umpire agreed with the call. She was penalised a point for that and the crowd began getting behind Graf from thereon.
The German, who turns 51 on Sunday, managed to regroup herself during that period and took a 4-3 lead only for Hingis to roar back with two straight games and serve for the match.
However, Graf wasn’t willing to give up and a cross-court backhand pass at 15-15 in the 10th game after a gruelling rally left Hingis gasping for breath and her more experienced opponent used that opportunity to force a decider by clinching three straight games from 4-5 down.
The crowd by then had started getting to affect Hingis and Graf began mixing things up with her sliced backhands to put pressure on her opponent. The German raced to a 3-0 lead in the decider before the Swiss fought back to clinch the next two games, setting up a mouth-watering finale.
But the experienced Graf kept moving Hingis across the court and saved a game point in the sixth game to wrest back the initiative. The crowd was by then firmly behind the German and that frustrated her opponent even more.
She raced to a 5-2 lead and nerves clearly got the better of Hingis in the final game. Serving to save the match, the 18-year-old Swiss served underhand to win a point. But when she attempted the same trick for the second time, spectators booed her and she lost her concentration and tried arguing with the chair umpire.
This even got Graf involved as she asked whether they could get on with playing tennis. They did and the German sealed the title. She did reach the Wimbledon final few weeks later, eventually losing to Lindsey Davenport in straight games.
But soon after bagging her sixth crown at the Roland Garros, Graf hinted at a possible retirement when she said: “This is definitely the last time I play here.”
Speaking about the crowd support she got, the German admitted that she felt at home.
“This feels amazing; I feel French,’’ said Graf. “This is by far the biggest, the most unexpected win I’ve ever had. It was one of the craziest matches ever; it had everything.”
As luck would have it, Hingis could never get her hands on the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, though she did win two women’s doubles and one mixed doubles titles at Roland Garros.
You can watch the entire match here