'Magician' dreams of Centre Court as stage for one last trick

Fabrice Santoro may have recently broken the record for Grand Slam appearances, yet, as he tells Paul Newman, the unpredictable French veteran still longs to grace Wimbledon's showpiece in a singles match

Fabrice Santoro knows that the end of his remarkable career is fast approaching but, as he prepares for the start of Wimbledon next Monday, the 35-year-old Frenchman has one more wish. "My dream is still to play a singles match on Centre Court," he said. "I've only ever played doubles on Centre Court. Maybe it will happen this year. I've asked the Wimbledon referee and he says that if we have a chance we'll do it."

Santoro has achieved so much since making his professional debut 863 matches and 20 years ago – his first match was against Luke Jensen at a Challenger event in Cherbourg – that he might consider an appearance on Centre Court as a fitting way to bow out. For many months now he has been fending off questions about retirement. "I haven't decided yet, but it will be pretty soon," he said. "There's a big chance I'll retire by the end of the year."

There are, after all, few records left for Santoro to break. In this year's Australian Open he overtook Andre Agassi's mark for the most appearances at Grand Slam events in the Open era when he played in his 62nd major, dating back to his first French Open in 1989. He last missed a Grand Slam event, Wimbledon, in 1998, with next week's tournament his 40th successive appearance at a major.

Since the world rankings were launched in 1973 there have been 23 world No 1s and Santoro has played 19 of them, including Jimmy Connors (who lost in Vienna in 1992), Ivan Lendl (who won in Nice in 1993) and Mats Wilander (who lost at Roland Garros in 1991). The only world No 1s he never played were Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Santoro also featured in the longest match in history when he beat Arnaud Clément 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 16-14 after six hours and 33 minutes in the 2004 French Open.

Without ever reaching the world's top 10, Santoro has been a model of consistency and fitness, having never dropped out of the top 100 since February 1997. He has won five singles tournaments and enjoyed even more success in doubles, winning 24, including Grand Slam crowns in Australia in 2003 and 2004.

Thoughts of retirement may have been reinforced by crushing defeats at this year's two Grand Slam events – in Melbourne, Santoro won only three games against Roger Federer and in Paris he won just one against David Ferrer – that have helped push his world ranking down to No 52. Nevertheless, those performances ran against the grain, for, like the best wines from his homeland, Santoro has generally improved with age. He reached his highest ranking of No 17 in 2001.

"When I was 24 I was very close to quitting," he recalled. "I didn't feel I was progressing and I wasn't having fun on the court. I think I became a better player because I got to understand my game and my opponents' game better. I also got to understand my body better. I started to appreciate better what I could and couldn't do.

"I think I've been lucky to have played most of my best tennis late in my career. It can be hard if you start off very strong and then you have trouble maintaining that high level. When I was 25 I was still improving and when I was 30 I was still improving. Even now I still feel I'm playing at a high level."

Born in Tahiti, where his parents were working, Santoro was a top junior and played in his first senior final when he was only 17. His most recent final was in Newport, Rhode Island last year, when he claimed his only singles title on grass. A keen student of the game, Santoro said: "That was the only time I played at Newport. I'd heard about the Hall of Fame and I've always been very interested in the history of tennis, so I wanted to see it."

One of the reasons for Santoro's success has been his unique playing style, which opponents can find impossible to fathom. Pete Sampras famously labelled him "The Magician", a tribute to his unpredictable use of spins, lobs and drop shots.

Andy Murray is one of several who say that Santoro is their favourite player. "It was very kind of Andy," Santoro said. "He's also a player that I enjoy watching. He's a very smart player and I like the way he moves. I prefer players like that rather than the players who just rely on their power."

The most remarkable shot is his double-fisted forehand, which he started playing as a boy when his father gave him a large racket. "When I started hitting some balls against the wall the racket was too heavy for me, so it felt natural to hit the ball two-handed," he said.

"A coach tried to get me to change to play single-handed when I was 11 or 12 but I didn't want to. I've never wanted to change. I don't think playing single-handed would have made me a better player. Playing double-handed on both sides is one of the things that makes me different to other players and they can find it hard to cope with."

The French and Australian Opens are Santoro's two favourite tournaments, while he rates his five-set victory over Marat Safin at Roland Garros in 2001 as the best match he has ever played. He considers Federer the best player he has faced, though chasing Agassi's Grand Slam record became a big incentive. "Agassi is one of the greatest players ever and I have huge respect for him," Santoro said. "Being in front of him on this list is the only way that I could ever be ahead of him."

In recent times Santoro has found the hard work needed to remain at the top increasingly demanding. "You just can't take three or four days off because your body is painful and stiff when you start working again," he said. "I love to play matches and I love being on the court as much as I ever did, but I don't like the travelling so much. I'd rather be with my family and friends, at home and sleeping in my own bed."

Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions