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FRENCH OPEN

Gaudio Crafts a Clay Beauty

Unseeded Argentine has to fend off match points and rallies to beat countryman Coria in five sets to win a men's final that lasts 3 hours 31 minutes.

June 07, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The French Open of peculiarity ended with a twisting, turning train-wreck of a finale, featuring not one, not two, but several massive reversals, and tears.

It left Guillermo Coria of Argentina a broken man in every way -- physically, mentally and spiritually. And he won the first eight games, the first two sets and had two match points in the fifth set.

His countryman, Gaston Gaudio, had looked as if he might be lucky to claim a game. Even the harshest of crowds, the fickle Parisians, felt moved to give him a boost of morale, going to the wave with Coria leading, 4-3, in the third, in an effort to see more tennis. Gaudio put his racket on the court and applauded the crowd.

It had been 27 years since an Argentine won at Roland Garros and the final between Gaudio and Coria felt like 27 more years, leaving almost everyone emotionally spent Sunday at Roland Garros. The unseeded Gaudio defeated No. 3 Coria, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6.

"I've been there so long, I look like Lawrence of Arabia," said 1977 French Open champion Guillermo Vilas, who watched his two countrymen toil and emote for 3 hours 31 minutes.

Gaudio's reaction was unadulterated joy after he hit a backhand, cross-court winner on match point. After hugging Coria at the net, he circled the court, slapping hands with the spectators.

He is the first unseeded player to win here since Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in 1997 and is ranked a modest 44th. Also, the 25-year-old Gaudio is the first player to win at Roland Garros after saving a match point since Gottfried von Cramm did it against Jack Crawford in the 1934 final.

"It's like I touch heaven," Gaudio said. "It's everything."

Coria, 22, smashed his racket afterward and, for him, the wait for the trophy presentation from John McEnroe and Vilas seemed interminable. He had cramped at the start of the fourth set, needing treatment and appeared to give away the fourth to save strength for the fifth.

His news conference turned almost into group therapy. He was asked about the issue of supplements. Coria tested positive for nandrolone in 2001, serving a seven-month suspension, maintaining he had been victimized by contaminated supplements.

This memory opened up the floodgates. He started tearing and began weeping. Coria never regained his equilibrium and kept talking and crying, finishing in tears.

"I had difficult months," said Coria, delving into religion. "I hope God will be fair with me and give me another opportunity. It's true, at that moment, I was not believing a lot in God. I insulted him. But now I believe in him."

Based on the past, there was an initial suspicion Sunday when he first called a trainer. Coria made the same sort of move against Gaudio in their last meeting in Hamburg, Germany, last year, upsetting Gaudio. Afterward, they had a heated confrontation.

Here, Gaudio seemed unable to deal with the sight of watching Coria put in recreation-type serves and not chase down any balls in the fourth, and then start bouncing on his toes and running well in the fifth. Coria got into Gaudio's head so deep, he might as well have set up camp.

"I know Coria because I coached him for 2 1/2years," said Gaudio's coach, Franco Davin. "I know that Gaston's game could hurt him, make him work a lot physically so that he could have a little bit of a problem, but I didn't think it was that bad as it looked on the court. Something like that happened in the past, so he probably did it again to upset Gaston on the court and make him lose the concentration."

But Gaudio realized the ailment was legitimate.

"He couldn't play the fourth set," Gaudio said. "Even in the fifth set, he couldn't serve. Yeah, I thought maybe the same situation like in Hamburg, but then I realized it wasn't like that."

Still the knowledge didn't stop him from a mental meltdown in the fifth set. French TV put up a drawing about Coria with the words: "The Little Cat is Nearly Dead."

Not so. Coria led, 4-2, and served for the set at 5-4 and 6-5, with the two match points in the 12th game. On the match points, Coria missed a backhand wide and a backhand long, giving Gaudio a lifeline. There were times Gaudio looked at his supporters and laughed at the incredible, crazy final.

"I was laughing because I couldn't believe what was going on over there," Gaudio said. "It was like a movie. I was watching my coach and telling him, 'What is this?' I mean, it's like too much."

Gaudio thanked the crowd for helping him rally. He dedicated the title, his third as a professional, to his father Norberto, who survived a heart attack when Gaudio was 16.

He may have known something special would happen in Paris. Earlier, he compared Coria and David Nalbandian to the Galacticos of the glitzy Real Madrid soccer team and called himself Valencia.

Gaudio beat Nalbandian and Coria in the last two rounds, and Valencia did win the Spanish League this year.

"I don't lie. I always say the truth," Gaudio said, smiling. "That's why I say Valencia because they got the championship and I got it."

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