The 1990 French Open final should be, at the very least, the reason why I love tennis. Why? Andrés Gómez won the match, and he comes from the same country I do, that little South American piece of land on the Equator that someone named “Ecuador” in an amazing display of creativity.
The likelihood of an Ecuadorian winning a Grand Slam in singles is very small. After all, most people in my country grow up loving a rather different sport: soccer. I love tennis, so I should love what Gómez did. Every shot of that final against Agassi should be ingrained in my memory. An Ecuadorian won a Grand Slam! How crazy is that?
There’s one small problem, though: on the biggest day for Ecuadorian tennis, June 10th, 1990, I was seven years old. Worst of all…I wasn’t even in Ecuador at the time. My family had been living in Los Angeles, California since mid 1989, and we would return to Ecuador in the summer of 1990, just in time for me to catch match point of that French Open final being replayed frequently on TV.
Surely you can ask why I didn’t watch that French Open final in LA. After all, it surely was on TV in the US, no? Agassi was in the final! Who knows why I didn’t watch it. You’d have to ask my parents. I asked my mom, who isn’t very fond of sports (understatement) and here is what she said:
Me: So, I’m writing a piece about the 1990 French Open final.
Me: Do you know who plays in that final?
Me: (Really surprised) Right! One question: why didn’t we watch that match?
Mom: I don’t know.
All I remember watching in LA is basketball games involving the Los Angeles Lakers. I remember falling in love with that game back then, not tennis.
Still, I should also know everything about Andrés Gómez, right? Wrong. Apart from match point of the famous Roland Garros triumph, I only seem to remember watching highlights on YouTube of the 1990 Philadelphia final, where Pete Sampras beat Gómez for his first tour title. I remember that he’s called “The Golden Lefty” in Ecuador. I know that he’s from Guayaquil, the most populous city in Ecuador. I didn’t know that he was 6’4. That seems remarkable. I didn’t know he had won 21 titles. I did know that he was ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles, but forgot he won the US Open and the French Open in doubles, too.
I didn’t know that Gómez made the French Open quarters three times before 1990…and lost every single time to Ivan Lendl. Gómez actually made the quarters of three of the four Slams in 1984, losing to Pat Cash at Wimbledon and to Lendl everywhere else. Gómez won his only Slam semifinal, and his only Slam final. He didn’t lose a Grand Slam final in doubles, either.
I should have known all of this before. But I didn’t.
Somehow, it never occurred to me to type the words “Gomez Agassi French Open” on YouTube’s search box until earlier this week, when Amy, Lindsay and I were doing our Changeover Chat on our various tennis memories. I honestly didn’t expect much to show up. My best case scenario was that some patriotic Ecuadorian uploaded match point. Lo and behold, someone had transferred an old VHS tape of the Italian broadcast of the whole match. The whole match was there!
To make your lives easier, I’ll use timestamps from the video itself for noteworthy moments, and each timestamp will be a link to that specific moment in the video. Hence, you can just click on the link and watch whatever it is I’m talking about.
Let’s start! First, our players for today:
Notice how Gómez is wearing a cotton vest at the start of the match. Now that’s old school. Sadly, the vest lasted all of one game – as soon as Gómez held to start the match, the vest came off. A minor tragedy, because Gómez was wearing a truly inexplicable shirt underneath. You’ll see.
So many things can be said, but I’ll just limit myself to pointing out the fluorescent pink biker shorts. I guess these are the precursors of the infamous “piratas” Nadal wore in the 2000s. So awful.
You know what’s not awful? The stage for this match:
This image comes from 22 years ago, and Chatrier looks exactly the same as it did during this year’s French Open. I love that the color used as background for all the sponsor logos is still that same ugly green. Sure, BNP has become BNP Paribas and they have a new logo, and a machine calls lets instead of an actual person, but still.
Now, the match.
Gómez holds easily to start the proceedings. Confident start, despite the “Now or Never” thoughts that had to be flying around his head non-stop.
Agassi is at the other end of the spectrum: he’s 19, and while this is also his first Grand Slam final, he doesn’t have the experience of the 30 year-old Ecuadorian. Hence, he starts his opening service game with three errors, two of them double-faults, and finds himself in a 15-40 hole. But then, Steffi Graf’s future husband steadies himself, and does what he should do in this match: jerk the 6’4 veteran from side to side with aggressive shots from the baseline. He saves the first break point this way, and Gómez bails him out with a forehand UFE in the second. A couple more purposeful points from Agassi, and he escapes. We now see his box:
Nick Bolletieri! Look at those sunglasses…You’d think this match was played in 1985. Notice also how Nick still had hair back then, and hadn’t turned himself into an Orange American (copyright: Stephen Colbert).
7:14: A few things here. First: doesn’t Agassi remind you of Ryan Harrison? OK, you have to forget the ridiculous hair and the ridiculous clothes…but doesn’t his build remind you of the tempestuous young American? Second: Agassi claims Gómez’ serve was out. Interestingly enough, back then the chair umpire didn’t come down – it’s the linesman who approaches the mark and signals a different mark than Agassi was pointing to, and calls it in. Agassi disagrees, they have a brief argument, and then Agassi wipes the mark on the court with his foot. Only he wiped the mark he thought he saw, which was well out. Classy! Click on the timestamp to see for yourself. The French crowd seemed amused. I’m shocked they didn’t boo him.
7:52: These next three points showcase a lot of things about Gómez’ game. First, that weird serve of his. He barely gets off the ground, and the toss stays in the air for what seems like an instant. Given that he’s 6’4, this is not the kind of serve you expect. It had to be tough to read, but it doesn’t seem like he’s getting a whole lot of power on it. Second: you know what Gómez gets a lot of power on? That lefty forehand. It seems like he puts a ton of weight on it, too. Like he’s hammering you with it. It’s not like a Nadal forehand that kicks up and that he hits mostly to his opponent’s backhand. It kinda reminds me of Soderling’s forehand, particularly when he attacks with it. The ball just flies off his racquet and through the clay. Third: Gómez’ backhand, along with his movement, is definitely his weak spot. He uses a one-handed backhand that produces a fraction of the power of the forehand, and is rarely employed to attack. He struggles to find depth with it, and he even slices it regularly. Also, his backhand return often lets him down.
As you can imagine, Agassi tends to target that side. Often with good results. Still, Gómez is able to hold comfortably, and at 3-2, Agassi seems to have steadied himself, although he doesn’t seem to have much of a read on Gómez’ serve. The American holds in about 2 seconds to make it 3-all, and Gómez finds himself in a 15-30 hole after Agassi pulls him wide and forces him to hit uncomfortable forehands. There are plenty of bad backhands, too. Soon, it’s 15-40.
19:19: Just watch how Agassi botches this first break point. After his great cross-court backhand pulls Gómez well wide on his forehand and nets him an easy short ball to attack down-the-line, Agassi decides to go for his first dropper of the match. The sign of a nervous youngster. It fails spectacularly, of course. Since when is Agassi the finesse player? If you kept watching, you saw how Gómez saved the second break point: with some massive forehands. Another huge one clinches the game, and it’s 4-3.
26:55: A very nervous Andre Agassi leaks a couple of unforced errors, and suddenly, Gómez has a chance to break at 30-40. Earlier in the game there was a strange situation when a Gómez forehand was called out, he angrily started walking to check the mark, the crowd started getting cranky, and Gómez retreated without us seeing why exactly nobody checked the mark. The booing stopped. Anyway, back to the break point. Here you can see another aspect of Gómez’ game that shines: his net play. He hits a good volley that ends up setting up an easy overhead to break. There’s a reason four years earlier he was ranked No. 1 in doubles.
30:19: Gómez races to a quick 40-15 lead, and this next point illustrates two things. No.1: Agassi is completely lost when it’s time to return Gómez’ serve. Has no clue where it’s going. No.2: Gómez is a wily veteran. What transpires is fun: Gómez catches Agassi cheating on the return, moving to his left to hit an inside-out forehand just as Gómez goes up to hit his second serve. The Ecuadorian surely caught Agassi’s movement in the corner of his eye, so he sends his second serve up the T for a clean ace to clinch the set. Such a veteran move.
This is what IBM statistics looked like in 1990:
Like you, I have no idea what “Pts 1er service” means. At least we know that this opening set took just 30 minutes. Aren’t you glad technology has gotten better?
The first set was your typical nervy opener between two guys who haven’t played a match of this magnitude. Agassi had his chance to take the lead at 3-all, but his shot selection betrayed him. Gómez was the steadier of the two, and once he survived that tricky seventh game, he managed to find ways to attack with his forehand and survive with his backhand.
The conclusion I gathered from that set was that Agassi seemed more intent on trying to force Gómez to miss rather than trying to end points on his own terms. Whenever Agassi was aggressive with his cross-court backhand, good things happened for him. However, he let Gómez get away with way too many short balls, and his returning was beyond poor.
33:44: Agassi finds himself down 15-40 to start the second set, after a couple of errors on his part, and a good backhand from Gómez, which caught him by surprise. But look at how beautifully Agassi saves the break point – with a crazy dropper while running sideways. If you kept watching, you will see how well Gómez sets up the next point…and absolutely gags away an easy volley. He had hit a fantastic backhand down the line to set it up, too. However, Agassi double-faults to set up another break point. Mr. “Image is Everything” then becomes obsessed with attacking Gómez’ backhand, and ends up netting a cross-court forehand. The ad court was wide open throughout. Break to Gómez to start the set.
39:08: Agassi’s persistence on finding Gómez’ backhand pays off, as my compatriot makes a couple of mistakes on that side, and the compounds them by botching an inside-out forehand. Agassi has a chance to get the break back. This timestamp will take you to the point where you can see OCD Agassi in full flight: after Gómez sends a serve wide, Agassi directs the ballboy to go back to his corner, almost like one of those people who directs airplanes on runways. What follows is an ultra nervy break point, in which nobody wants to risk much of anything, until Gómez somehow decides to stop hitting forehands, and instead go for his second dropper of the match, off his backhand, which ends up predictably in the net. 1-1, then.
42:24: Agassi consolidates the break and goes up 2-1, although he had to save another break point after Gómez had hit a great return winner to set it up. Agassi survived with a forehand down the line winner. A rare patch of good play in this match.
46:46: Gómez hits an absolute beauty of an angled forehand winner. In this set he’s been going for more spin and less power off that wing. A strange decision, but in this case both spin and power met for an instant of perfection.
50:23: By this point, Gómez has survived the first break point of this service game. Here follows the best point of the match so far: a violent rally that ends with Gómez netting a forehand. Agassi gets the break, and goes up 3-1.
Agassi holds in a heartbeat, goes up 4-1. It seems like the worst thing that could have happened to Andrés Gómez was to go up a set and a break. Hasn’t won a game since, and errors are coming from all sides now. His shot selection has left him down, too: more and more he’s approaching the net with shots hit straight at Agassi, who’s passed him without much difficulty.Also, Gómez can’t buy a first serve.
Naturally, the opposite can be said about Agassi, who is flying high, making few errors, and putting in deep returns off of Gómez second serves.
1:02:54: This is Agassi at his best: he runs Gómez ragged, pulling him outside of the court with a gorgeous angled backhand, and like a cat with a half-dead prey, lets Gómez make the mistake before ending the point himself. Agassi has won 5 games in a row, and is up 5-1.
Here’s a “tasteful” still shot of the French broadcast:
They actually showed where this strange-looking snake/dinosaur thing came from: it’s the handle of an umbrella some gentleman brought to the match today.
Unrelated – I have no idea what’s happening here:
The French TV loves this guy, because they show him before and after a point in Agassi’s service game. I have no idea why he’s wearing his sunglasses that way. And notice how the man sitting next to him is wearing the exact same shades.
Anyway, things aren’t going very well for Agassi, as he goes down 0-40 after an UFE from him is sandwiched between two Gómez return winners. Agassi saves the first break point with a service winner, but then gives the break away with a double fault.
These are the things that happen when two players are tangled in their first ever Grand Slam final.
1:07:14: Here you can see a proud French tradition: booing anybody who dares look at a mark! I have no idea why they do it – Gómez’ shot looked wide, so it was well worth checking the mark.
Gómez goes up 30-0, and then starts to moonball. Inexplicably. He won the first set by being aggressive and taking his chances. Yet here…he moonballs. I won’t make you watch it, don’t worry. Still, he makes it to 40-15, but three sloppy mistakes later, and Agassi has a set point on his serve, which is saved by a Gómez ace.
I still can’t get over the fact that Gómez barely gets up for his serve. He’s 6’4! How does he not have a better serve?
Two wild errors later, and Agassi has taken the second set, 6-2.
At this point, things are looking quite grim for my compatriot. Gómez has lost his way completely, and Agassi seems to be in a groove, easily finding Gómez’ backhand whenever he wants, and forcing the 30 year-old to play a lot of defense.
1:12:18: Is this a sign of things to come? Gómez gets a look at a second serve, and two monster forehands later, he puts away an overhead. That’s the kind of tennis that got him the first set. If you keep watching, you’ll see that Gómez pummels another Agassi second serve with a forehand return winner. I’m guessing the urgency of “It’s now or never” took a hold of the man from Guayaquil.
You know what? Just watch that entire first game. It’s fun. For one, there are more points won on great shots than mistakes. Gómez sets up a break point with a pretty volley (the approach had been excellent), but then botches the return badly. That’s only the second UFE of the game. The Ecuadorian sets up another break point with a beautiful slice backhand that clips the tape.
Agassi goes on the offensive on that break point, but midway through he loses his mind and hands the initiative back to Gómez with a strange forehand slice that might have been one of the worst drop shot attempts I’ve seen. Gómez slices a good approach, and puts away the overhead for the break. Fun game.
And just as the match is heating up…
The VHS-equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death. Isn’t it nice that we have digital video these days? Things HAVE improved since 1990. Still, I’m not complaining – I never thought I’d see this match to begin with.
1:20:22: This is such a pretty volley from Gómez, who was down 15-30 at the time. Again, he was a two-time Slam champion in doubles for a reason. Also, keep watching, because Gómez then serves and volleys for the first time in the match, and digs up a beauty of a drop volley. He consolidates the break a second later, after another foray into the net.
Agassi holds in about 2 minutes, so Gómez will serve at 2-1 in the pivotal third set.
1:27:33: Gómez was up 30-0 comfortably, yet 3 straight errors finds him down a break point. You’ll see how he avoids the break: by blasting a thunderous forehand down the line from behind the baseline. Two good serves later, and Gómez holds for a 3-1 lead.
When Gómez goes for that forehand…it’s just devastating.
1:29:30: For the life of me, I don’t understand why the chair umpire doesn’t come down to check marks in 1990. This timestamp will take you to an argument Gómez has over a serve by Agassi that was called in. From what I gather, the umpire doesn’t even allow for the line judge to come check the mark. Even though it’s on the far service line. At least this stuff doesn’t happen anymore. Anyway, Agassi holds easily, so Gómez will serve at 3-2.
Agassi still struggles to get a hold of Gómez’ serve, and the Ecuadorian holds to 15 in a game that included two great forehands to start. Agassi then holds in a flash once again, and it’s 4-3. Except for the two games with break points, this set is just zooming by, and the only difference between the two players was Gómez’ aggression in that first game of the set. Also key: Agassi has been finding more first serves since that service game. One forgets how weak Agassi’s second serve was. Andy Murray’s looks like Sampras’ in comparison.
1:40:26: This was a fantastic point by Agassi. Gómez served and volleyed, but Agassi sent a bullet of a return to Gómez’ shoelaces, and hit a wonderful cross-court backhand pass from an awkward position, since Gómez’ volley had been quite good. Nice point. Gómez had double-faulted to start the game, and he would miss a forehand wildly to set up 0-40. If you kept watching, you saw how Agassi broke Gómez with a pretty forehand down-the-line pass, after Gómez was forced to come in behind a weak return by Agassi. So, 4-all.
1:44:01: Agassi took the momentum of that break all the way to a 40-15 lead…and then you’ll see the two great shots Gómez came up with to get to deuce. After a lucky letcord floated an Agassi shot, Gómez puts it away and has an unexpected break point. Which Agassi plays horrifically, with one of his bad drop shots at the worst possible time, and executed in the worst possible way. Those are the kind of shots you hit when you’re a nervous 19 year-old. Gómez somehow gets to serve for the third set, which seemed completely unlikely just a few minutes ago.
1:48:05: Here you can see Gómez’ eventful attempt at clinching the set. It starts with the Golden Lefty disputing two straight marks (a serve, and then an overrule from the chair – who comes down to check the mark for once). Agassi complained about the overrule as well, since Gómez was given a let, even though he didn’t get a racquet on the ball. It was the right call, though: Gómez let up once the “out” call came. You can see for yourself.
There are two aces, a double fault, a bad Agassi error, and a fantastic service winner on set point.
That was a strange set of tennis. Agassi started it with all the momentum, and Gómez seemed lost at sea. But then Gómez breaks Agassi to start by showcasing the aggressive tennis that netted him the first set, and it seemed like the Ecuadorian would cruise to the finish line. Instead, he played a horrible game at 4-3, got broken at love, and somehow got back in Agassi’s next service game just as the Vegas native was comfortably up 40-15. At that specific juncture, 40-15 on Agassi’s serve, it seemed like the young guy was back in charge, and that Gómez would rue that 4-3 game. As we know, things can turn at any time in a tennis match.
1:52:42: It’s pretty hilarious how this set starts exactly like the previous one. Agassi is serving, and Gómez plays an ultra-aggressive point to start. If you kept watching, you saw a gorgeous Gómez angled crosscourt forehand winner at 40-15, and a great inside out forehand by Agassi to hold. Nice composure by the teenager, who had to have a déja vu feeling at 0-15.
For no real reason at all, here’s Agassi’s hair, after close to two hours of play:
The back says “hairpiece”, but the front says “actual hair”. Or, “hairpiece stuck on bald forehead with Crazy Glue”.
Gómez holds easily with some good first serves, and it’s 1-all.
2:00:40: This is a key (and fun) game, so do watch it in its entirety. We pick up the action at 30-15, Agassi’s serve. You’ll see the two beautiful points that set up a break point for Gómez. who sure looked like a Grand Slam champion when he was being aggressive. First it’s a backhand down-the-line winner after an intense rally, and then it’s a pretty cross-court forehand and down-the-line forehand combo to set up the key 30-40 point. Agassi saves it with a big dose of luck: a strange lob of his barely catches the baseline, and then his forehand put-away clips the net but still lands in.
Then Gómez sets another break point after hitting an incredible backhand down-the-line pass from a very awkward position, which Agassi can barely get a racquet on. The Ecuadorian rallies the crowd, takes advantage of Agassi’s decision to serve to his forehand, comes in behind a very deep return of serve, and puts away the easy volley to get the early break. That was quite the sequence.
2:07:10: Here’s another pivotal moment in the set. Gómez was cruising, and found himself up 40-15. However, Agassi clawed back to deuce by using a tactical element that had worked for him all match: attacking Gómez with his cross-court forehand.
Agassi lost this match by being indecisive about his tactical scheme. He didn’t recognize the moments when Gómez’ backhand was working well, and kept going there with his own backhand down the line, leaving the deuce court wide open, as it happened on this crucial deuce point. Gómez teed-off on Agassi’s very short backhand, and a few seconds later, he held to consolidate the break. 3-1.
More on Agassi: it’s so obvious that he has the edge when he hits cross-court forehands that force defensive backhands from Gómez, and particularly when he pulls Gómez wide on his forehand side with his own cross-court backhand. However, it seems like Agassi played this match with the intent of waiting for Gómez to crumble just because he was older and has a worse backhand than him. Few Grand Slams are won this way.
Then again, tactical confusion is frequently the sign of a teenager not named Rafael Nadal (or Pete Sampras) playing the biggest match of his life.
Agassi holds in the blink of an eye, and then goes up 0-30 on Gómez’ serve. However, he hits one of his trademark horrible drop shots at 15-30, loses the point, and two big Ecuadorian serves later, Gómez has held for a 4-2 edge. Undeterred, Agassi holds at love to make it 4-3. Gómez might or might not be tanking these Agassi service games, fully aware that he’s 11 years older than his rival, and that he has the break advantage. Smart veteran move to conserve as much energy as possible.
2:20:40: Another huge moment: Gómez is down 0-30 yet again, and he comes up with two incredible shots to make it 30-all. However, he leaves a volley hanging, Agassi makes him pay for it, and suddenly, the Golden Lefty is facing a break point. And here is where Gómez comes up with the goods: first a clutch ace up the T to nullify the break point, and then a gorgeous volley followed by a few fistpumps to give himself a chance to hold. Which he does after a service winner. That was clutch. Also, the crowd is really into it by now. 5-3, Gómez.
The Ecuadorian finds himself two points away from victory at 15-30 in the next game, but a good forehand from Agassi coupled with two backhand errors allows the strangely clad American to hold, leaving the 30 year-old veteran from Guayaquil to serve out the biggest win of his life, and the biggest tennis achievement for my country.
At least he doesn’t look nervous:
2:27:23: Here we go. The first point? A nervy forehand into the net. Not the greatest of starts. Second point? Much better. Gómez follows a missile of a forehand into the net, and after Agassi lobs his volley, he puts away the overhead. Afterwards, he yells at himself loudly “Vamos!” over and over again. Gómez then serves and volleys, but leaves the volley well short, and Agassi passes him once again. 15-30. 15-40 is avoided by using a wide lefty serve + forehand down the line combo that results in an easy overhead. Smart lefty tennis. Gómez arrives at match point after belting two more humongous forehands. That’s Slam-winning tennis for you.
And here’s match point. What a way to win it. Gómez went for the T with the first serve, missed, and then hit a sensible lefty slider second serve which Agassi returned deep…only to see Gómez smoke a beautiful forehand down-the-line for a clean winner. That was glorious.
That’s how you win Grand Slams, no? You go for it. Here is what the celebration looks like:
I am very glad I watched this match. I really would’ve loved to follow Gómez’ career: he was fun to watch, particularly when he was being aggressive with his forehand, and when he was able to hit those pretty volleys. But as it stands, this is the only full match of his that I’ve ever seen. And all thanks to someone who taped the Italian broadcast of the final on a VHS tape, digitalized it, and uploaded it to YouTube earlier this year. I couldn’t be more thankful for this unlikely opportunity.
While I was writing this piece, my wife kept telling me that when she visited me in Ecuador in 2007, quite a few people randomly brought up in conversation the fact that Gómez had beaten Agassi at the French Open. I thought that was somewhat strange, but now I understand it a lot better. When you’re from Ecuador, you’re used to being the perpetual underdog. More specifically, the perpetual underdog that doesn’t even get to participate. So when one of us gets on the big stage and beats a favorite from a big country like the US, we remember it. How could we not? It doesn’t even matter that few Ecuadorians actually follow tennis. Gómez’ triumph belongs to all of us.
That’s why my mom, who couldn’t care less about any sport, can remember who won the 1990 French Open final. These things, you never forget.