Argentines make an impression
PARIS -- David Nalbandian, looking at his first match point off the racket of Gustavo Kuerten, leaped on it.
He slammed a deep return at Kuerten's feet and the three-time champion couldn't handle it. His forehand sailed long and so did Nalbandian -- into the semifinals with two other fellow Argentine men. But this isn't the Argentina Open at the swanky Buenos Aires Lawn Club, this is the French Open, the most important clay-court tournament of the year.
With Paola Suarez on the women's side, Argentines comprise half of the remaining field. What in the name of Guillermo Vilas is going on here?
"It's incredible for Argentina," Nalbandian said. "It's great for the person who's actually going to win the French Open. We have 75 percent possibilities of winning."
Nalbandian took out Kuerten, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6) on Wednesday, while Gaston Gaudio had a relatively easy time with Lleyton Hewitt, winning 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. They will meet in one Friday semifinal and No. 3 seeded Guillermo Coria -- the prohibitive favorite -- plays Great Britain's Tim Henman, who defeated another Argentine, Juan Ignacio Chela in the quarterfinals.
In only three previous Grand Slams in the Open Era did all four men come from the same country. Given the quirkiness of the clay here at Roland Garros, three out of four isn't bad. Previously, the best performance by Argentina's men in a Grand Slam event was two -- Vilas and Jose Luis-Clerc -- in the 1982 French Open quarterfinals.
None of the current male semifinalists had been born when Vilas won here in 1977.
Although the Argentines seem to be in the midst of a coming out celebration, their debut came some time ago. Nalbandian was the first to make an impression in the Grand Slams -- reaching the final at Wimbledon in 2002. Coria was next when he made the semifinals here at Roland Garros last year. Then both players reached the quarterfinals at the U.S.Open and Nalbandian nearly beat eventual champion Andy Roddick in the semifinals.
Coria is ranked No. 3 in the world, followed by Nalbandian at No. 8, Juan Ignacio Chela (No. 23), Mariano Zabaleta (No. 32), Augustin Calleri (No. 42) and Gaudio (No. 44). That's six players ranked among the top 44. And while much has been made of the Spanish superiority on clay, the Spaniards have an equal number -- Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya, Tommy Robredo, Feliciano Lopez, Albert Costa.
Although three of them have won at Roland Garros, none of them is still alive here, suggesting that the reign of Spain might be over.
This is a sore subject with the Spanish players. After he was beaten in straight sets by Coria, Moya was asked if Argentina had surpassed Spain.
"I don't think they are stronger than we are," Moya said. "Just because we are in one tournament they have done better than the Spanish -- maybe you look at the rankings.
"For sure, they are doing very well, but I wouldn't say they are better than us. Both countries are doing very well."
Still, while Spain might be the current king of clay, the future seems to be in Argentina, a nation of only 39 million souls. Moya is 27, while Costa turns 29 later this month. Coria and Nalbandian are both 22 and ranked among the top 10. Gaudio is 25.
"We're all very pleased because we work every day," Coria said on Tuesday. "Nalbandian and myself have played a lot. The other players have also made sacrifices in terms of their family and so on. That's very important."
After defeating Hewitt, Gaudio talked about the difficult road he and his compatriots have traveled from their homes in Argentina, where less than two years ago a financial crisis froze nearly every bank account across the country.
"Sometimes there was no money to travel or we had to cancel a tour," he said. "Sometimes you had to stay in Europe for an extra month to wait for the next tournament. We couldn't go back home because we couldn't pay the airfare.
"It's very difficult to reach the level that we have now."
The enormous resilience they've needed to reach that level was displayed by Nalbandian in Wednesday's featured match against Kuerten. He was down 3-5 in the fourth set and it looked like Kuerten would force a fifth set and bring the supportive crowd at Philippe Chatrier into play. But Nalbandian won some fierce rallies and forced a tiebreaker.
Kuerten led 5-2 and actually held a set point, at 6-5, but Nalbandian, unimpressed, won the last three points. The first was a majestic cross-court inner forehand, followed by two errors from Kuerten.
"One of the keys to this match was that I remained very calm," Nalbandian said. "I never got nervous. I never got tense. It's not easy to play against Guga, he's almost a local here."
Nalbandian, uncharacteristically giddy for the man who earned the French press's dubious "sourpuss" award for this year's tournament, didn't seem to care whom he might play in the final.
"I prefer to be in the final," Nalbandian said, cleverly. "Doesn't matter who I have to beat. I think Tim played really good the other day against Juan, and that was maybe a little surprise for everybody. He really do a very good job out there. But I think he still has to play like this to beat Guillermo first and then me or Gaudio.
"It's absolutely incredible what we're doing this week," Nalbandian said, smiling.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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