Here y'all go
took me an hour to get this straight. It's long I must warn you.
He may be a skinny country boy from a place where streetlights are
rare, but don't be surprised if Guillermo Coria takes the City of
Lights by storm.
By Douglas Robson.
A visitor to Buenos Aires could be forgiven if, upon brushing
shoulders with Guillermo Coria, he mistook the 22-year-old for an
upwardly mobile native of the city's sprawling slums, the villas
miserias. While Coria finished No. 5 in the world, his sinewy,
almost scrawny, 145-pound frame, together with his squinty eyes,
stringy hair and taut, boyish face, seems less the endowments of a
budding tennis star than a street urchin.
Indeed, watching Coria practice one day this spring at the Pacific
Life Open, in Indian Wells, Calif., 60-year-old tennis enthusiast
Patrick Hynes admitted that he couldn't identify the ballectic, if
spindly legged, player. As Hynes said, "He's the most unknown No. 5
in the world, and I've been following tennis for a long time."
Rest assured, though, that Coria's rivals on the ATP tour would have
no trouble picking him out in a lineup. Coria is such an
accomplished athlete that he has earned the nickname El Mago-"the
Magician." But for all his deft racquet work, Coria's game has less
to do with smoke and mirrors than with steely will, grooved ground
strokes, and a willingness to run all day. And, owing to a humble,
rural background, he appreciates every opportunity the glitzy
profession offers. "When a family have enough money, it creates alot
of problems" Coria says, through the interpreter who shepherds him
through interviews in any language but Spanish. "I appeciate what I
have when I go out on the court, and I will run to death to win a
match." Andre Agassi can attest to the sincerity of that claim,
having been picked apart by Coria in 4 sets at last year's French
Open (Coria reached the simifinals). "There's no question he's one
of the best claycourters," Agassi says. "He forces you to play a
risky game, basically because of his great movement and the way he
controlls the ball." Andy Roddick has a simpler assesment,
characterizing Coria's game on dirt as just plain "McNasty."
Whatever that means, it can't be good-at least not for the handful
of contenders at Roland Garros, including the defending champion,
Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, and the game's newest No. 1,
Switzerlands' Roger Federer. For them, the troubling news is that
the indefatigable Coria has another crucial year of experience under
his belt. "To win is my only objective," he says. "Last year I was
very disappointed because I was so close, but I lacked a little bit
of experience. Now I'm ready emotionally and psychologically to win."
IF CORIA'S FORMATIVE YEARS WERE NOT EXACTLY
Dickensian, they certainly were flush with great expectations. His
father, Oscar, was a tennis coach in Venado Tuerto, a sleepy town in
the Argentine farming heartland. The city of 75,000 is a four-hour
drive notherwest of Buenos Aires and a place where, as Coria fondly
says, "Everybody knows eveybody." Oscar had plans for the oldest of
his three sons even while the boy was still in the womb, deciding to
name him in honor of the legendary Argentine player Guillermo Vilas.
The new Guillermo did not disappoint, happily picking up a racquet
as soon as he could walk. At times, Coria says, family finances were
tight. "We always had food on the table, but my dad' had to teach a
lot of tennis to make ends meet. Then, with me playing as a pro,
that helped too." Like many youngsters in Argentina, young Guillermo
split his time between tennis and soccer. But by I2, Coria realized
that his future lay in hitting balls, not kicking them. A year
later, he quit school and dove into the Latin tennis pipeline that
has spit out scores of South American kids: the Key Biscayne, Fla.,
academy of Patricio Apey; former coach of Gabriela Sabatini.
Coria says he fiIlally became "serious" about his tennis at Apey's,
modeling his baseline game after three players whom he came to play
nothing like, but still idolizes: Vilas, Marcelo Rios, andAgassi.
After developing his game, Coria returned to Argentina and the
daunting task of battling for junior supremacy with his rival, David
Nalbandian (beating him for the junior title at Roland Garros in
I999 was a career highlight for Coria). Roddick, 2I, never squared
off against Coria in junior play. But he took note when Coria double-
bageled a player who had beaten Roddick one round earlier at junior
Wimbledon. "Guillermo has always had an amazing feel for the game,"
the No. I American says.
That sensitivity is most,conspicuous on clay, where Coria has been
downright McNasty to all comers for more than a year. In 2003, he
won his first Masters series title, on clay (Hamburg), and was a
finalist at Monte Carlo and a semifinalist at Roland Garros. Later,
he captured three straight clay-court titles (Stuttgart, Kitzbiihel,
and Sopot) to become the first man since Austria's Thomas Muster in
I996 to win three tournaments in consecutive weeks on any surface-a
feat Coria accomplished without dropping a set.
This year, Coria set off for the spring clay-court events toting a
20-match clay winnjng streak and a mind-boggling 42-2 record in
sets. "I've won so many matches and tournamep.ts on clay that the
confi*dence is really there," Coria says. "On clay, people come on
court thinking differently. I have an edge. I feel like I was born
For all that, Coria is no slouch on other surfaces, either, which
helps explain how in 2003 he became the first Argentine to crash the
Top 5 since Vilas in I982. Coria won five titles in 2003, including
one on indoor carpet in Basel. He also reached the quarterfinals of
the u.s. Open en route to qualifying for the season-ending Mast rs
Cup in Houston. These magical results underscore the extent to
which, in an age of bangers, Coria is part of an emerging cadre of
mobile, fit, consistent tacticians (think Lleyton Hewitt and
Federer) who have brought a measure of guile and craftsmanship back
into the sport. The slight Coria can hardly outmuscle opponents, but
he can dominate matches, even against imposing opponents, with a
combination of speed, footwork worthy of Argentine soccer legend
Diego Maradona, and reliable ground strokes and returns of serve.
Coria led the tour last year in return games won (39 percent), and
was second in breako-point conversion rate (49 percent).
But despite his burgeoning stardom, Coria remains a country boy,
fiercely devoted to Venado Tuerto. He also dotes on his two younger
brothers, Roman and Federico. And on tour last year, Coria so missed
his I9-year-old girlfriend, economics student Carla Francovigh, that
he at times considered tanking just to get home to her. They
resolved the issue with a December wedding attended by 400 guests. A
lifelong fan of the legendary Riv r Plate soccer club, Coria had the
team's red logo emblazoned on the shirt that he wore under his tux
at the altar. Carla didn't learn of the stunt until too late, when
they were on the way to the reception. Coria says, laughing, "She
almost killed me."
That he behaves more like a stars truck sports
fan than an emerging sports idol underscores Coria's refreshingly
simple character in the flashy world of big-time atWetics. His only
nod to flamboyance is the gold chain around his" neck, which bears
his wedding ring andE a small gold tennis racquet pre ented to him
by hometown friends. Coria's greatest vice seems to be a weakness
for electronic gadgets-he's never seen a Best Buy that he didn't
want to clear out.
Coria's close friends call him "Guille"
(pronounced GHEE-jay), but that's a small, tight circle. The
introverted Coria is particularly careful to maintain a distance
from his Argentine rivals.
"It's not easy for him to make friends with other people," says
Martin Garcia, a friend and doubles specialist from Argentina. "He
likes to be with his group."
FOR A SHY AND SEEMINGLY GROUNDED
young man, Coria has known a fair share of controversy. And his on-
court tempera*ment is anything but retiring. In manyways he seems a
Latin version of Hewitt, right down to his penchant for punctuating
win*ners with cries of "Vamos!" - "let's go!"
One of the controversies in which Coria became embroiled was a
potential career killer: the seven-month suspension he received
during, the second half of 2001 for testing positive for the banned
steroid, nandrolone. Coria successfully argued that the positive
result was caused by his ingestion of contaminated vita*mins-hence,
the relatively light sentence. Still, Coria says, "It was the worst
period of my life. But it also made me very strong, If I managed to
come back from that, it proves that nothing is going to stop me. It
also made me realize how much I love tennis. And it was important
for me to see who was around me, who was supporting meat the time."
Last year at Roland Garros, in his first Grand Slam semifinal, Coria
received an official warning for a shocking outburst during which he
hurled his racquet to the backstop, narrowly Inissing a ball girl in
the process. It hardly helped that he made amends later, removing
his shirt and presenting it to the girl while tapping his heart in a
gesture of atonement.
Presumably, he makes no such gesture when firing coaches. Coria's
post*suspension shakeout included firing his coach and countryffian,
Franco Davin. The next man to step into the breach was another
Argentine, former Top Tenner Alberto Mancini. He lasted a year.
Coria also went back to the motherland for his current coach, Fabian
Blengino. To survive, he'll have to live up to a rigorous standard
of productivity and avoid the differences with Coria that undid
In South America, Coria is pften com*pared with the burned-out
Chilean star Rios. But Coria is a more re olute competi*tor. And
while he may not have lethal fire*power, he employs wicked angles,
lobs, and devilStating forehand drop shots to back up his 'keen
court sense. He often makes opponents look like Fred Flintstone
trying to take off in his car-feet spinning furi*ously, they still
get nowhere in the point. As US. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe
says, "He can make guys feel stupid when they're playing him."
Coria will probably need to get stronger and improve his net play in
order to move higher in the rankings, But many, including McEnroe,
feel that, as he matures, his prowess on fast courts will increase.
For Coria, leading his country to a Davis Cup triumph and winning a
gold medal at the upcoming Olympic Games ffi are high priorities.
But neither is quite as towering as his desire to win the world
championships of clay, Roland Garros.
As his peers will attest, EI Mago is more than capable of achieving
that without resorting to sleight of hand.