- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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The wave? Now? Couldn't they see they weren't helping? Guillermo Coria squinted up at the stands at Roland Garros late Sunday afternoon and took in the swirl of Argentine flags that had turned the place into Little Buenos Aires. He waited. The wave circled the stadium again and again, everyone standing and throwing his arms up to the perfect sky. No, he didn't need this. The cramps had set in, and he was so close: up two sets to none, 4-3 in the third. Two games away from the French Open title. Two games from living up to his nickname, El Mago (the Wizard), and dispelling his three-year-old reputation as a steroid cheat. The wave circled around his head, chewing up precious minutes. Then, across the net, Coria saw his outclassed opponent, Gast�n Gaudio, do something strange.
Gaudio dropped his racket, smiled and began to applaud. Coria hesitated, grudgingly tapped one hand on his racket, and with that all his magic disappeared. Gaudio won eight straight points, and Coria's expected coronation became Grand Guignol. The French Open is the most perverse Grand Slam event, but not even the Marquis de Sade could have imagined this: Racked by cramps, Coria, the third seed and this season's king of clay, lost the third set, could barely move in the fourth and squandered two match points in the fifth. After taking a 7-6 lead, a stunned Gaudio did another strange thing. He opened his mouth wide and laughed. "Yes, because it was more like a movie," said the 44th-ranked player. "And I don't even know it, but I'm the star."
S�, at least for one glorious day. It had been 70 years since a man saved match point and won the French Open. But at 6:46 p.m. on Sunday, Gaudio, the least accomplished of a surging band of Argentine men, slashed a final crosscourt backhand to beat the most talented one, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6, in the first all-Gaucho major final. Gaudio hurled his racket into the bellowing crowd and screamed. Coria hugged him at net, walked over to his chair and shattered his racket against the terre battue. He has always insisted on his innocence since testing positive for nandrolone in 2001 and being suspended from the tour for seven months, and he'd seen this match, this first tango in Paris, as a chance to change the subject at last. "I was dreaming of this situation," said the 22-year-old Coria, tears coursing down his face. "To see that my body let me down and my nerves let me down...I want to come out of this story."
That reaction couldn't have been more appropriate to the 2004 French Open. What the tournament lacked in great tennis, it made up for in psychodrama. Whether because of familiarity, friendship or intense national pride, the all-Argentine men's final and Saturday's all-Russian women's final overwhelmed everyone involved. "We're going through something that is absolutely unprecedented," Coria said on Friday. " Argentina is going to be celebrated throughout the world for a few days because we've done something wonderful."
Well, yes and no. The last two all-American and all-Belgian women's finals did little to promote the game elsewhere, and in the U.S., anyway, TV ratings for the French Open men's and women's finals were abysmal. In that respect the tournament did tennis no favors. Two weeks ago, remember, the ATP tour rolled into Paris looking to build on the narrative begun by last summer's Grand Slam champions, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. What it got was a runner-up who reminded everyone of its flawed drug-testing policy and a 25-year-old champion who gives every indication of being a one-hit wonder. Wimbledon can't come soon enough.
The men's consolation? They aren't the women. Once known for great rivalries and fiery matches, the women barely seemed interested in competing in Paris. Injuries and illness have sapped the WTA tour, but that hardly explains the limp departures of Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and, most pathetically, French hero Am�lie Mauresmo, like Coria a No. 3 seed and tournament favorite. In the quarterfinals Mauresmo took one look at Elena Dementieva, against whom she had a 5-2 record, and retreated 6-4, 6-3. Suddenly it seemed as if the entire women's game had come down with the vapors.
And that was before Anastasia Myskina skunked Dementieva 6-1, 6-2 in one of the worst finals in Open history. Myskina had flummoxed Williams and Capriati with her booming backhand and off-speed junk to set up a meeting with her childhood friend. "It's going to be a nervous match," she had predicted. She wasn't kidding. In the locker room beforehand, Myskina wept. Fortunately, her opponent was even more fragile. Dementieva was so shaken during the final that she had trouble seeing the ball and breathing. Her serve has always resembled something constructed out of popsicle sticks and glue, and on Saturday it collapsed. After double-faulting to go down 2-4, 0-15 in the second set, Dementieva screamed, "I hate my serve!" Explaining her disintegration after the match, she, too, started to cry.
At 22 Dementieva still has time to get over it. So does Coria, who mounted the podium stairs on Sunday like a man going to the guillotine. "At 22," said Argentine tennis legend Guillermo Vilas, "there are no big prices to pay."
For a player of 25, it's different; everyone knows his prime is nearly past. Gaudio's father, Norberto, introduced him to tennis, and when Gast�n was 16, Norberto almost died of a heart attack right before his son's eyes. Gast�n put down his racket and stayed near his dad for three months, "watching while he was sleeping and seeing if he is breathing or not," he says. To have his father, back home in Buenos Aires, alive to see him win a major "is everything for me," Gaudio said on Sunday. "I don't have the time to be with him right now and give him a big hug and...ah...I start to cry now."