Argentines Revive a Dormant Tennis Tradition (New York Times)
May 23, 2004
Argentines Revive a Dormant Tennis Tradition
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
ARIS, May 22 — The 21st century has been a daunting, demoralizing time for Argentina, a time of currency devaluation and deflated expectations. But there is at least one sector of Argentine society in the midst of another golden age: men's tennis.
Seven years ago, the nation that produced Guillermo Vilas and his Davis Cup sidekick José Luis Clerc did not have a man ranked in the top 75. Last week, eight Argentines were in that elite group, none of them older than 27. The leader of the new wave, the smooth-moving Guillermo Coria, is the first Argentine since Vilas to reach No. 3 in the world and is on the shortlist of favorites to win this year's French Open, which begins here on Monday.
"Argentina needs things to be proud of, because when you cannot buy the things you used to buy, you feel very down," Vilas said in a telephone interview. "But through sport you can still achieve things that you could not achieve before."
For the moment, Coria, eighth-ranked David Nalbandian and the other new Argentine stars are still chasing the achievements of Vilas, who won four Grand Slam singles titles.
Vilas's last major victory came in 1979 at the Australian Open. He remains the only Argentine man to win a major.
"I really think these guys are going to win Grand Slams," Vilas said. "And for sure they will win the Davis Cup. I don't see how they can't, because there are so many of them, and they are so young."
Coria has been the most successful clay-court player over the past year, winning 31 of his past 32 matches on the surface that provides the best forum for his grace and fluid counterpunching.
"This is the first time I feel coming into a Grand Slam tournament that I'm prepared to win it," he said last week.
Coria was named by his father, Oscar. "I named him for Vilas, because until Vilas came along, tennis in Argentina was only for the upper classes," Oscar Coria, a coach who now runs his son's tennis academy, said in an e-mail message. "Guillermo was born on the day that Vilas beat Clerc for the first time in 14 months. I never thought my son would be a champion. But I did have the hope that he would play tennis."
Coria's best performance in a Grand Slam tournament was reaching the semifinals of the French Open last year. Nalbandian reached the Wimbledon final in 2002 and the United States Open semifinals last year. Although Nalbandian claims to prefer faster surfaces, he, too, is a threat to win at Roland Garros.
Other Argentines have also thrived on clay this spring. Juan Ignacio Chela won in Estoril. Gaston Gaudio reached the final in Barcelona, an event he won in 2002. Mariano Zabaleta has been a consistent threat on clay. And Agustin Calleri beat Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, the defending French Open champion, last year in the Davis Cup semifinals on clay in Malaga and upset Andre Agassi this year in Key Biscayne, Fla., on a hardcourt.
That was the same tournament in which another Argentine, 20-year-old Juan Monaco, defeated the former world No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian who began the South American renaissance in earnest by winning the first of his three French Open titles in 1997. The next year Marcelo Rios of Chile became the first South American to reach No. 1. But it is Argentina's star turn now.
The sobering note is the specter of doping. Chela tested positive for a steroid in 2000, and Coria for nandrolone in 2001, although both were given reduced suspensions after arguing that they had ingested the substances inadvertently.
Argentina has had fine men's players since Vilas, including Martin Jaite, Guillermo Perez-Roldan and Alberto Mancini, but never this many at once.
"Our strength is in numbers," said Guillermo Cañas, who became the first Argentine to win a Masters Series event when he won the Canadian Open in 2002. "We all train together and improve off each other."
The epicenter of the Argentine tennis boom is at two adjacent clubs: the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club and the Vilas Racket Club. Coria and Nalbandian are frequent visitors, although both were reared far outside the capital. Coria is from Venado Tuerto, about a four-hour drive northwest of Buenos Aires. Nalbandian grew up farther north in Unquillo, near Cordoba, Argentina's second-biggest city.
Born less than two weeks apart, Coria and Nalbandian, both 22, have been rivals since they were preteens. Like most of the new wave, they come from middle-class families.
But Coria and Nalbandian benefited from a national program put in place in the 1990's to identify and nurture talent. Vilas initially played a significant role. Though he lasted less than a year, that centralized approach has remained a strength of the system.
Unlike Nalbandian, Coria left the country at age 13, accepting a full scholarship to Patricio Apey's academy in Key Biscayne. Apey previously coached Argentina's greatest women's player, Gabriela Sabatini.
When Coria returned home nearly two years later, he and his peers benefited from the creation in 1997 of the Copa Ericsson, a circuit that provided South Americans with the chance to compete for precious computer points and prize money relatively close to home.
The financial crisis put an end to that tour in 2001, and soccer still matters there much more than tennis. But Vilas can sense that perceptions are shifting.
"Before in Argentina, a tennis player was considered to be a guy who could not play soccer," Vilas said. "Now, if you are a tennis player, people say: `Wow, that's great. What's your ranking?' "
The answer to that question is an increasing source of pride for Argentines, and another Grand Slam title would do even more to improve the national mood.
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