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Men's Final Is a Real Happening

Unheralded Verkerk or two-time finalist Ferrero will win his first major championship today.

June 08, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Martin Verkerk stood on center court at Roland Garros. He had reached match point in his semifinal. One more shot, perhaps, and Verkerk, ranked 46th in the world, playing in his first French Open, winner until arriving here two weeks ago of exactly zero major championship matches, would be in the final.

Tears were gathering in his eyes as the final point was played. In his head were thoughts, he would say later, of "my whole life. I saw the bottom, the challengers. I saw two times how I wanted to quit tennis because I was mentally not good. I had the talent but not the fight."

Verkerk gripped a ball and the moment was overwhelming. "One serve, you're on match point, you think that if you can just make this, it is to change my life. To make a final of a Grand Slam, I don't know what's gonna happen with me."

What's gonna happen to Verkerk? He has made it. After winning his match point against Guillermo Coria on Friday, Verkerk dropped to the ground, lay on his back and wept.

Today Verkerk, a first-time Grand Slam finalist who must return home to the Netherlands on Tuesday to play for his club team, will face stoic, third-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain.

This will be the second straight French Open final for the 23-year-old Ferrero. A year ago, when he lost to Albert Costa, Ferrero said he was bothered by a sprained ankle. This year Ferrero beat Costa in straight sets in the semifinals and now gets a crack at one of the unlikeliest French Open finalists imaginable.

Verkerk's game over these last two weeks has been dominated by his serve. He has averaged slightly more than 18 aces a match. His mind has been dominated by the sheer wonderment of it all.

"You have your family with you here," Verkerk said, "your coach. Two times you want to quit the game because you think you're not mentally strong enough. Your father, who was your sponsor for a few years. Nick Carr, my coach, who puts his life in me. All those things with this one result, I change my tennis life around from a nobody to a somebody."

Eighteen men have won their first major title at Roland Garros. Today will be the 19th. That is more than twice as many as at any of the other three Slams. The slow clay tempts the unheralded, the unknown, with the faith that if they can be sturdy and strong, they can win.

And sometimes a man with the game for hard surfaces, with the booming serve and ability to pounce on short balls and even to volley, shows up in the semifinals or final. Pete Sampras got to the semis once. Pat Rafter too. Michael Stich made it to the final. But none of these grass masters won the French.

Ferrero, who missed the Australian Open because of a knee injury, is 27-2 on clay courts this year. He will be the huge favorite. "I think the clay court is not his surface," Ferrero said of Verkerk. "The key to the match will be return, return, return. I have a real chance to win, but I have to be able to win over a giant."

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