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The Magician's Final Trick


Fabrice Santoro© Getty ImagesFrenchman Fabrice Santoro, who turned professional in 1989, compiled a 470-443 career singles record and reached a career-high No. 17 on 6 August 2001.

Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, who played his final ATP World Tour tournament at the BNP Paribas Masters in November, reflects on his battles with a cavalcade of No. 1s during his remarkable career.  In a two-part series, Santoro talks about each of the 20 No. 1s he played.

Will there ever be another player like Fabrice Santoro?  Defying the power era in which he played, the diminutive Frenchman mesmerised fans – and many opponents – with a double-handed slice-and-dice game of finesse, spins, slices and chicanery that could drive you mad – and bleed you to death with a thousand cuts.  Santoro inflicted so much mental anguish on Marat Safin that he probably shortened the Russian's career by five years.

"I arrived at the stadium with my coach and I was feeling so small compared to him."

While Santoro is well known for his unique, ever-entertaining playing style, what is less well known is this: Santoro played 20 of the 24 players to ever hold the No. 1 ranking in the history of the South African Airways ATP Rankings (since 1973).

Santoro crafted 470 singles wins during his career and finished inside the Top 100 18 straight years, just one year shy of Andre Agassi's record.  And he had some very impressive head-to-head records against several of the players to rank No. 1, including Pete Sampras (3-4), Agassi (3-3) and Safin (7-2).  Oh, yes, and on the flip side, there was a 0-6 record against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, whom once brazenly told Santoro that he would never beat him.

In the first of our two-part series, Santoro talks about 10 of the 20 No. 1s he played:

Santoro 1995Santoro vs. Boris Becker
Head-to-head: 1-1

Most Memorable Match: I remember playing him in the Masters in Miami in 1990, I was only 17 years old.  It was in the second round.  I qualified and beat Rosset in the first round and in the night session of Miami in Key Biscayne I was playing Boris Becker and I was so impressed.  I remember I spent the whole afternoon at the hotel waiting for the match.  I was so stressed.  I couldn't believe I was going to play him at night in the strange atmosphere there.

I arrived at the stadium with my coach and I was feeling so small compared to him.  I thought, 'He's going to kill me!'  In this period he had a coach, his fitness coach, his physio, his stringer and me, I was just a young guy.  I was already very small compared to him by size, but also on the court I said, "I have no chance to play against him, he's too big for me!" I played a good match and lost in three sets.

Tactics: (Miami 1990 and Barcelona Olympics 1992): Both times we played I enjoyed playing against him.  His game was pretty good for mine because he was serving well but my return is one of the best parts of my game.

Santoro vs. Jim Courier
Head-to-head: 1-2

Most Memorable Match: I remember the first match we played in Brussels (in 1992) because in the winter time my serve was pretty weak and my coach and I decided we would not go to the Australian Open.  We said, "Even if you are like No. 45 in the world, you won't go to the Australian Open.  For three months you're going to stop competition to work on your serve."  So I stopped at Paris-Bercy in the beginning of November until February and I worked every day on my serve.  The first match I played on the tour was in Brussels in February and I arrived there and said, "Okay, I practised my serve for three months, now I'm like Boris Becker – I'm going to serve huge!"

"Good job.  I stopped for three months and look at the result!"

I came on the court, we did a toss and I won and chose to serve – because I thought my serve would be unbelievable.  The first game I served as hard as I could just trying to go for the ace.  I only put one first serve in and I lost my serve like this in two minutes (laughing).  I looked at my coach and said, "Good job.  I stopped for three months and look at the result!"  But anyway Jim was playing much better than me at this time and he killed me 6-2, 6-1.  It was a great week for me when I beat him in Montreal in 1997.

Tactics: I remember his forehand was pretty big.  We played a good match in Montreal and because I became more aggressive it was easier for me to play against him.  At the beginning of my career he was too powerful for me.

Santoro 2002Santoro vs. Marat Safin
Head-to-head: 7-2

Most Memorable Match: When Marat arrived on the tour he said, "It's a nightmare for me to play Santoro," but he was young.   Talented, but young.  Then he became No. 1 and he still said, "It's a nightmare for me to play Santoro."  When I beat him in the Olympics in 2000 he had just won the US Open and Tashkent back-to-back and he had won Toronto also and he was No. 1, and I still beat him.  Not because I was a better player, but because when I came on the court against him I was already a set and a break up because mentally he was completely down against me.  Actually he beat me only once because in Halle [in 2005] I had a match point and I hurt my leg.  You don't see this very often against me, retire.

Tactics: I think he was so negative against me and when I said, "If he wants to beat me he can, he's going to do it and he can do it easily," I was really thinking that.  He had everything to beat me but he didn't believe in his chances.

Santoro vs. Pete Sampras
Head-to-head: 3-4

Most Memorable Match: I'm very proud of my record against Pete for a couple of reasons.  First of all, because he is one of the best champions ever.  Also, because when you play one of the best champions ever, at the end of his career to be 3-4 down is an unbelievable record for me.  I beat him every time on clay and he beat me anywhere else in the world.

"He has everything to beat me but he doesn't believe in his chances."

I remember the match I won in Monte-Carlo 6-1, 6-1 [in 1998] because that was one of the best matches I ever played against anyone.  When you play Pete Sampras and you go out from the locker room onto the court you think you have a chance, or that you may lose, but you never think you are going to beat him 6-1, 6-1.  I was so, so happy at the end of the match.  Pete made me one of the best presents I ever had in my life, after the match he beat me in Indian Wells [in 2002] 7-5 in the third; he said I was 'a magician'.

Tactics: On clay he was serving big, but I was returning them to him most of the time and he was not moving well at the net.  He was a big athlete, his footwork was very good but not made for clay.  So I was passing him quite easily compared to on hard court.

Santoro vs. Andre Agassi
Head-to-head: 3-3

Most Memorable Match: I'm very proud about this record because he [Agassi] and Pete Sampras are two players I would pay for a ticket to see on court.  I would say that the one we played in Washington [in 1999] was the best match we ever played together.  I played a great match, but he was playing unbelievable that night.  It was so humid and heavy in Washington and I don't think I've had a lot of chances to play better than this.  He was just playing his best tennis this year in 1999 when he won the French.  It was always a big, big pleasure for me to play against him because I love the way he played and his game fits pretty well with mine.

Tactics: I tried to make him play one more shot every time.  I tried to go down the line with my backhand.

Santoro 1998Santoro vs. Thomas Muster
Head-to-head: 4-3

Most Memorable Match: It's pretty strange because I never won one tournament on clay, because the clay is not made for my game.  Muster was beating everybody on clay, but I beat him three times in a row on clay (Genova '92, Kitzbuehel '94, Monte-Carlo '97).  I have no explanation for that.

Tactics: I was very aggressive; I was moving in, I was taking some risks, that's for sure.  But what I can't explain is that he was beating everybody on clay, he was killing everybody, except me.  And me, everybody was killing me on clay, except him.  So it's pretty tough to explain.

Santoro vs. Marcelo Rios
Head-to-head: 1-3

Most Memorable Match: Rios was one of the biggest characters on the tour.  The first time I played him I remember in Prague.  One, it was a tough match.  It was a big match.  By the end he was pretty negative on the court, [had] a bad attitude on the court.  I remember that he was one of the biggest talents I ever played.  He could do anything with his arm – serve, backhand, forehand, volley.  He moved well [and had] good eyes.  He's one of the biggest talents we ever had in tennis in my opinion.  I don't think he worked hard in most of his career, but when he was fit, when he was working professionally, he was playing unbelievable tennis.  I remember when he became No. 1, he won Indian Wells and Miami in March, back-to-back.

Tactics: Normal.  He was just too good when he was playing well.

Santoro vs. Carlos Moya
Head-to-head: 3-1

Most Memorable Match: Carlos is good for my game because he has a big serve and big forehand, but I can read his game pretty well.  I remember the first time he beat me was in Indian Wells (in 2005).

Tactics: I was always happy to play against him because I could put a lot of pressure on his backhand; his backhand passing shot was not the best part of his game.

"One day he came to me and said: 'Fabrice, you will never beat me.'"

Santoro vs. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
Head-to-head: 0-6

Most Memorable Match: Kafelnikov was a nightmare for me!  He was returning well and I couldn't serve and volley against him.  His serve was not unbelievable but I could not put pressure on his serve because he was good enough to keep me back.  When he was playing a backhand cross-court he was better than me and when he was playing a forehand cross-court he was better than me too.  So at the end I had no solution at all.

One day he came to me and said: "Fabrice, you will never beat me."  And when a Russian says that, you know that you will never beat him.

Santoro vs. Patrick Rafter
Head-to-head: 1-1

Most Memorable Match: It was always a great pleasure for me to play him; he's the best player for me because I really liked this guy.  I had my best win ever on grass when I beat him in the semi-finals of Halle [in 2001].  We played almost back-to-back in 2001 and I played him in the semi-finals of Montreal when I reached my best ranking ever, 17.  It was the best period of my life because I was No. 17, I had a one-month-old daughter, I had just become a dad so this period was big and great for me.  I regretted that we didn't play more matches because with his game and mine it was a big pleasure to play him.

Tactics: It was important to return well.  When we played it was mainly spectacular points because I was returning most of his serves but then he was slicing from the baseline.  I was slicing too, so we were not playing very fast from the baseline, but it was spectacular.  I tried to get the first passing shot at his feet.

Read Part II

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