A 20-Year Career That Bridged Tennis Eras
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: July 7, 2009
NEWPORT, R.I. — There is no mention of Fabrice Santoro at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But during the Hall of Fame championships on the grass courts here, Santoro still likes to walk through the museum and reminisce.
Fabrice Santoro has played 20 of the 24 players who have been No. 1 in the ATP rankings.
“You have to come here and visit to know more about your sport, your life,” he said.
He stopped at a display detailing the Grand Slam championships. No man in history has played in more of them than Santoro, now 36 and in the final year of a two-decade career that served as a bridge between eras.
“I played him,” Santoro said, pointing to a photograph of Jimmy Connors. Then, seeing other familiar faces, he continued. “And him. And him. And him.”
The upcoming United States Open would be Santoro’s 69th major championship; his first was the 1989 French Open. Another way to view his longevity: Of the 24 players who have been ranked No. 1 in the ATP rankings, which began in 1973, Santoro played 20, beating most at least once.
The only top-ranked players that Santoro never played were Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. The first three were basically retired before Santoro turned 10.
Born in Tahiti and raised in southern France, Santoro is best known for his ability to wield a racket with two hands with flair, which led Pete Sampras to dub him the “magician,” a nickname that stuck and that Santoro wears proudly. Santoro was 6 when he first swung a heavy racket with two hands, the left above the right, on both forehands and backhands. Thirty years later, he is finishing a book, planned for release in France later this year, tentatively titled “A Deux Mains” (“With Two Hands”).
Less noticed but more remarkable about Santoro, perhaps, is the consistency that allowed him to finish among the top 65 players at the end of 17 seasons.
Santoro peaked at No. 17 in June 2001. This week, he is 34th, his best since 2004.
“It’s lower than my age,” Santoro noted with a gap-toothed smile.
Still, he will retire this fall, he said, to spend less time on planes and in hotels and more time with his 8-year-old daughter, Djenae. He is admittedly tempted, however, to play in the Australian Open in January. It would make him the first man to play Grand Slam events in four different decades.
Santoro made his first appearance at Newport in 2007. Arriving late with Djenae from Wimbledon, the first stop was to check out the 12,000-square-foot museum and its 20,000-piece collection. Santoro won the tournament — Djenae put the trophy in her bedroom — then won it again last year, pushing his career singles victory total to six. He was the only player over 30 to win in 2008.
Now the fan favorite, Santoro did not get a chance Tuesday to extend his unbeaten singles streak in Newport to 10 because his match against Italy’s Flavio Cipolla was rained out before he took the court.
On Monday, as Santoro won a doubles match alongside his countryman Nicolas Mahut, he returned one shot behind his back. A drop shot landed so softly that the ball barely bounced. He foiled opponents with wickedly spun second serves. He chased one shot onto an adjacent court, where he stopped and shook hands with the players there, eliciting laughter.
Santoro seems, in so many ways, a throwback to a time before the muscle-bound, grimace-faced era of today.
“Every time I go onto the court I have fun,” Santoro said. “So the best way to have fun is to do some original things. It is better for me when the crowd enjoys it.”
Most opponents have struggled with his unusual arsenal, like a slicing forehand. (If he could hit a screaming, top-spinning forehand like so many top players, Santoro said, he would have reached the top 10.)
He stayed near the top of the game, if never among the elite. He has made it to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event just once (the 2006 Australian Open, although he has two doubles and two mixed-doubles titles), but has beaten 17 of the 20 top-ranked players that he has played.
The only ones he did not beat were Ivan Lendl (0-1), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (0-6) and — so far — Rafael Nadal (0-1).
But he was 7-2 against Marat Safin, 3-3 against Andre Agassi and 3-4 against Sampras. He beat Roger Federer two of the first three times they met, but has lost the past eight meetings.
Santoro knows these marks off the top of his head. He also knows that he played (and won) the longest match in history — 6 hours 33 minutes over two days against France’s Arnaud Clement in the first round of the 2004 French Open. And, despite a winning record, he has more losses than anyone. “Yes, I have this record, too,” he said.
The breadth and depth of the competition that Santoro faced over 20 years is splattered throughout the Hall of Fame.
“I’m nothing compared to these players,” he said.
But he contemplated his own corner of history.
“Connors was born in 1952, and Nadal in ’86, I think,” Santoro said. “It’s 34 years between them.”
He thought for a moment and let out a “phew.” Finally, it seemed, he had even impressed himself.