Pioline Calls It Quits, Maybe for Good
By LYNN ZINSER
By its third agonizing set, Cédric Pioline's first-round qualifying match for the United States Open yesterday had morphed into his most dreaded nightmare. For a few minutes, he stood with his hands on his hips, watching the planes ascending from La Guardia. For a game, he stopped swinging at his opponent's serves. After losing his own serve one last time, he launched a tennis ball several courts away.
And by the time he was down by 0-5, the indignity of it all grew overwhelming. Pioline stormed off the court without playing the final game, pinning a "retired" tag at the end of his 3-6, 6-2, 5-0 loss to the little-known Marco Chiudinelli. Afterward, still battling the frustration, Pioline said he was considering putting a retired tag on his once-brilliant career.
"When you play like this, it's difficult," Pioline said. "You think maybe you can play much better, but it's not there. The tough thing is, when I practice, I play much better. Maybe during the matches I don't have enough confidence. It's tough to play that way."
From his misery on Court 7, Pioline, who is 33, could look up at Arthur Ashe Stadium at the National Tennis Center, where as recently as 1999 spectators watched him make the Open semifinals. He finished that year ranked 13th, and his having made the finals of the Open in '93 and Wimbledon in '97 — both loses to Pete Sampras — was still recent enough to make him feel as if his best was yet to come.
A broken left hand in 2000, though, started Pioline's fall, which has landed him at No. 119, too low for a spot in the Open's main draw. He had made it into the French Open and Wimbledon fields this year, losing in the first round of each. When his request for a wild card here was denied, he considered going home.
"Since I broke my hand, I haven't been the same," said Pioline, who plays right-handed. "I was top 10. Since that time, I never really came back. I couldn't find the way to get my tennis back."
Pioline, who is French, lives in Switzerland, but even he hadn't heard of Chiudinelli, who is Swiss. And what Pioline didn't know, he probably didn't want to know. Chiudinelli, a 20-year-old who has been playing professional tournaments since 1997, has $34,000 in career earnings, compared with Pioline's $6.8 million, and has only this year begun earning invitations to the qualifying round of Grand Slams. This was the first of those matches he had won.
When Chiudinelli saw he had drawn Pioline, he responded with a combination of disappointment and awe. Chiudinelli had been a ball boy at a tournament in his hometown, Basel, and had once chased balls at one of Pioline's matches.
"I didn't know I could beat him," Chiudinelli said. "I went on the court at the beginning with big respect because he was a great player. This is one of the first big tournaments for me, so I'm not very confident."
In contrast to the dark, brooding Pioline on one side of the net, Chiudinelli was the picture of youth and spunk, his blond ponytail bouncing behind him. Chiudinelli was playing well enough to be disappointed when Pioline used a late break to win the first set.
Chiudinelli bounced back, held serve and held on while Pioline began spraying errors everywhere. Pioline's fragile focus finally broke for good in the third set when he dumped two shots into the net to lose his first service game.
"I broke him and he started to give it away; I don't know why," Chiudinelli said. "He was one of the biggest players the last 10 years. I was looking up to him always."
By yesterday afternoon, Chiudinelli saw him from a new angle: watching Pioline's back as he strode away from Court 7, maybe for good.
"I cannot play forever," Pioline said, shrugging one last time.
ny times online
i will miss him. i last saw Pioline beat Linus Rusedski in a thrilling 5-setter at the USO a couple of years ago. i was so vocal in my support of Cedric that i actually managed to get his attention!