Sports

When the First Major is the Only One You Win

Thomas Johansson isn’t exactly sure where his Australian Open award is. He knows that the miniature replica of the trophy that he received for winning the title in 2002 is in his mother’s apartment near Stockholm, likely in a corner somewhere. Johansson and his family live in Monaco.

That doesn’t mean that the title, and the trophy, aren’t important. For Johansson, now 47, winning the Australian championship was the crowning achievement in a 15-year pro career that saw him reach No. 7 in the world before retiring in 2009. He had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at a major when he beat Marat Safin, the former world No. 1 and the 2000 United States Open champion.

“I’m quite humble, but also super proud that I won this title,” said Johansson by phone earlier this month. “To win a Slam you have to be strong, play extremely well for two weeks and even get a little lucky. Maybe I never won another one, but that’s OK, I’ll always have this one.”

Daniil Medvedev won his first major title last year by defeating Novak Djokovic in the finals of the U.S. Open.Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

For every Serena Williams, who holds 23 majors, and Rafael Nadal, who has won 22, there are dozens of players who captured their maiden Grand Slam title and no more.

When Emma Raducanu and Daniil Medvedev step on court for their opening-round matches at this year’s U.S. Open, they will both be defending their first major wins. Last year Raducanu, ranked No. 150 at the time, stunned the sport by becoming the first qualifier to win the Open.

Medvedev prevented Novak Djokovic from claiming the sport’s ultimate achievement, the Grand Slam — victories at the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships in the same calendar year — by upsetting him in the final. Raducanu and Medvedev will both be attempting to win their second major this year.

Some players, like Marcelo Rios, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Karolina Pliskova, attained the No. 1 ranking without ever having won a major. Caroline Wozniacki was No. 1 for months starting in October 2010, although she won just one major, the Australian Open in 2018.

“People don’t realize how hard it is to win a Slam,” said Martina Hingis, 41, who captured three Australian championships, one Wimbledon and one U.S. Open, all before she turned 19 years old. “But it was a different time. Whoever was on a roll, having a good year, was more confident and won the Slams. I don’t think it would be possible back in the day for a player from the qualifying to win the U.S. Open.”

There is probably no more dreaded moniker in tennis than One-Slam Wonder. Almost immediately after players win an important title, they are asked, “What’s next?” It happened to the former No. 1 Andy Roddick after he won the 2003 U.S. Open, even though Roddick reached four other finals, including the 2006 U.S. Open and three Wimbledons, losing all four to Roger Federer.

It also happened to Dominic Thiem when he beat Alexander Zverev to win the 2020 U.S. Open and to Gabriela Sabatini when she beat Steffi Graf at the 1990 U.S. Open. Sabatini, a star on tour for most of the 1980s, won two WTA Finals, but never another major. Neither did Pat Cash, who won Wimbledon in 1987 and started the tradition of players climbing into the stands after winning the tournament. Yannick Noah once threatened to jump into the Seine because of the pressure he felt after becoming the first Frenchman in 37 years to win the French Open in 1983.

“You always want to back up any big win,” said Mike Bryan who, together with his twin brother, Bob, won 16 major doubles titles. “When we won our first French Open [in 2003], we didn’t win another Slam for more than two years. At every press conference it was, ‘When are you going to do it again?’ There’s just this voice in your head that you always have, until you win the next one.”

Thomas Johansson won his first, and only, major title at the 2002 Australian Open.Credit…Adam Pretty /Allsport, via Getty Images

Some players win their first Grand Slam title at a young age and never repeat. Michael Chang was 17 years old when he stunned Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg to win the French Open in 1989. He never won another major. The same is true for Jelena Ostapenko, who won the 2017 French Open just after her 20th birthday. Sofia Kenin won the Australian Open at age 21 in 2020, and reached the final of the French Open later that year, but is now ranked outside the world’s top 200, in part because of an injury-laden year.

Jana Novotna, on the other hand, was nearly 30 when she finally won Wimbledon in 1998, five years after her final-round collapse against Graf. Francesca Schiavone was also almost 30 when she beat Samantha Stosur (herself a lone major winner at the 2011 U.S. Open) to capture the 2010 French Open. And Flavia Pennetta was 33 when she won her only major at the 2015 U.S. Open. As she collected her trophy, Pennetta announced her retirement from the sport.

“The moment you win, everything you have worked on for years and years has come true,” said Schiavone, 42, as she prepared to play the legends event at Wimbledon last month. “Your heart is full because your dream came true. You are not anymore an outsider. Now you are a major champ. But then you have to empty your heart and put a new dream in there. It’s not easy, but you have to fly again with constant work.”

Mary Pierce remembers feeling overwhelmed when she won the Australian Open in 1995, the year after she lost in the French Open final to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.

“You’re on such a high, and it gives you the confidence to feel like you’re one of the best in the game,” said Pierce, who backed up her victory by winning the French Open five years later. “It’s your goal, so you want to do it again.”

Pierce understands what it will be like for Raducanu and Medvedev when they return to this year’s U.S. Open.

“Winning your first Grand Slam completely changes your life,” Pierce said. “It’s now commercials and photo shoots and TV shows and events that you weren’t doing before and are now taking your time and energy away from training and resting. It can also be emotionally draining, and you need that energy and that focus and concentration to compete.

“Plus, now everybody’s recognizing you wherever you go, watching everything you do, and you’re not used to that, so you have to adapt. Just feeling the expectations and pressure with everyone expecting you to play well and to win every time, which is not humanly possible. We’re not machines, we’re not robots.”

Backing up a major championship by winning another may be paramount to a player’s psyche. Some players need that career validation. Others don’t.

“I think One-Slam Wonder is one of the stupidest words in tennis,” said Johansson, who also won a silver medal in men’s doubles from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “Winning one Grand Slam title is incredibly hard to do, unless of course you’re a Roger, Rafa or Novak because they’re so good. I’d prefer to have won one Slam than to have been in the finals three times.”

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