Posted on Mon, Jun. 07, 2004
Cry for Coria today, and root for him tomorrow
BY CHARLES BRICKER
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
PARIS - (KRT) - I first met Guillermo Coria in the days before the start of the 2002 Nasdaq-100, when he was barely 20 years old, had mastered only one English phrase (``for sure'') and had only recently returned to the ATP Tour after a seven-month suspension for ingesting a banned substance.
Being from Argentina and so close to Chile, it was easy for people to compare him to another smallish player with spectacular speed and wizard-like hands - Marcelo Rios.
But after a few visits with Coria, it becomes delightfully obvious he and Rios don't twin at all. They have similar skills, but Rios is a brooding, whiny player with no real love of the game.
Coria, by contrast, is a very decent young man with a deep desire to become a great tennis player and who has profited by the slap in the face he received when he tested positive for doping. It should be noted that the ATP agreed that, like many other players, he took the banned substance unknowingly.
Since then, also like many players, he has refused to take dietary supplements or even energy drinks during changeovers in matches because of the chance, however remote, that they might be contaminated, and that might have contributed to his cramping in the French Open final he lost to Gaston Gaudio on Sunday.
When Coria broke up and began sobbing during his post-match news conference, it reaffirmed my belief in his character and integrity. It tugged at you to listen to him talk about his continuing series of physical maladies, and when he said, ``I want out of this story,'' you were nearly ready to cry with him.
By all rights, he should be the French Open champion. His skills are so far ahead of Gaudio's that there is a touch of the ridiculous that Gaudio is enshrined today as the No. 1 player at Roland Garros.
Yes, Gaudio deserves the title. You win the final point, you deserve the trophy. Fine. But we also all know he was completely outplayed for two and a half sets. Coria destroyed him, committing only 13 unforced errors in shooting out to a 6-0, 6-3 lead and took Gaudio completely out of form by almost never allowing him to hit more than one or perhaps two backhands in succession.
If Gaudio tried to manipulate him into a backhand-to-backhand rally, which is his greatest strength, Coria would play a safe ball down the line, with a few feet of margin for error, forcing Gaudio to go to his weaker forehand.
But neither did Coria allow Gaudio to get grooved on the forehand side by mixing the rallies. Playing 8 feet behind the baseline, Gaudio decided not to take Coria's shots early but to try to out-rally him. He had no chance until Coria began to cramp.
And so Gaudio has one the one and only Grand Slam of his career. Like Albert Costa, who won here two years ago, he will not win another major.
It's difficult not to be happy for him. Gaudio is real lunch-pail player who has had to scratch and work for every peso he got as a junior to buy equipment, hire coaches and to purchase flights to tournaments from Buenos Aires. There was no national tennis federation to help him.
He's a career top-50 player who will flirt with the top 10 after this triumph, then fall back with the start of the grass-court and then the hard-court seasons.
As for Coria, he can have the world if he can overcome his emotions. He has many of the skills you find with Andre Agassi - great hand-eye coordination, excellent service returning, great anticipation and strong ground strokes off both sides.
He doesn't yet have Agassi's mental strength or the improved serve Andre cultivated in the middle years of his career. But that can come because he has another of the traits that Agassi solidified five years ago - complete commitment to the game.
A day before the French Open final, I asked Coria if he regrets never having played Pete Sampras. He had a beautiful reply and one that showed how much character he possesses.
Yes, he said. He would have loved to play Sampras, but not on clay. On grass. He wanted to face Pete on Sampras' best surface, to test himself in the most difficult conditions.
He's just 22, not much older than Andy Roddick and the same age as Roger Federer. Three different styles, three great players. Despite the disgrace of this loss in Paris, Coria will be back, and men's tennis, at the very elite level of the game, is in very good shape because of him.
© 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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