Henman vs. Coria presents a clash of styles

Updated: September 1, 2004, 1:01 PM ET
Associated Press

PARIS -- Tim Henman will be easy to pick out Friday in the semifinals of the French Open: He'll be the one at the net.

He'll also be the lone Brit -- and the only non-Argentine.

A serve-and-volleyer defying conventional wisdom by winning on clay, Henman has made an improbable run while many favorites were stumbling. He has succeeded with the same tactical approach employed by Pete Sampras, a perennial bust at Roland Garros.

The three other semifinalists prefer to play behind the baseline, where most French Open champions can be found. Guillermo Coria, David Nalbandian and Gaston Gaudio are willing to run from corner to corner hitting groundstrokes for hours at a time, which is why Argentina is enjoying its best Grand Slam showing.

The clash of styles should be intriguing when the No. 3-seeded Coria plays No. 9 Henman, with the winner bound for his first major final.

"He's a very dangerous player,'' Coria said. "But I'm going to play my best tennis so that I can beat Henman.''

The only certainty about the other semifinal between No. 8 Nalbandian and the unseeded Gaudio is that the winner will be Argentine, assuring the nation of its first finalist at the French Open since Guillermo Vilas in 1982.

Oxford-bred and groomed on grass, Henman arrived in Paris a 100-1 bet to win the world's largest clay-court tournament. He remains the long shot among the final four, and that's not the only reason he stands apart.

The other semifinalists are part of a resurgence in South American tennis that began when Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten won the first of his three French Open titles in 1997. Marcelo Rios of Chile rose to No. 1 the following year, and now Argentina's in the vanguard, with six players among the top 50.

Three men's semifinalists represent the nation's best result in a major event. Juan Ignacio Chela gave the Argentines four men in the quarterfinals, another first.

By contrast, men's tennis in Britain has been on the decline since, oh, about 1936 -- the year Fred Perry became the most recent Englishman to win Wimbledon. That tournament has always been Henman's focus, and he has inflated and then deflated the hopes of his countrymen by advancing to the second week each of the past eight years before losing.

No Brit has won the French Open since Perry in 1935, although Henman's grandfather, Henry Billington, reached the quarterfinals in 1939.

It's likely no Brit expected Henman to reach the final four this year. But he defeated Chela in the quarterfinals to keep the French Open from becoming the Argentine national championships.

"As I've said all along, you know, why stop now?'' Henman said. "I feel good about my game. I've been playing well.''

In fact, he has played well enough to match the best showing at Roland Garros by Sampras, winner of 14 major titles but none on clay. Coincidentally, Henman's coach is former Sampras mentor Paul Annacone.

With Annacone, the 29-year-old Henman has fine-tuned his already low-key manner to achieve an even more composed mind-set.

"My demeanor on the court is very, very good,'' Henman said. "It's relaxed. It's calm. Mentally I'm getting better at playing the right way.''

His stoicism will be tested against Coria, an in-your-face grinder who combines the best traits of Rios and another former No. 1, Lleyton Hewitt. He has won 36 of his past 37 clay-court matches.

"His record speaks for itself in the past 12 or 18 months,'' Henman said. "I'm sure he feels good about his game.''

Coria thrives on the surface that's most popular in his country, but among the Argentines, Nalbandian has enjoyed the best Grand Slam results. And aside from top-ranked Federer, the sturdy, steady Nalbandian may have the most complete game of anyone on the men's tour.

He reached the 2002 Wimbledon final before losing to Hewitt and advanced last year to the semifinals at the U.S. Open, where he held a match point before losing to Andy Roddick.

"Nalbandian -- he can play anywhere,'' Gaudio said.

Like Coria, Gaudio is a speedy scrapper who's best on clay. The first-time Grand Slam semifinalist is 13-5 at Roland Garros and 7-15 in other major events.

It's been 25 years since an Argentine -- Vilas -- won a men's Grand Slam title, but Gaudio said he doubted that a victory in the final Sunday would have folks dancing in the streets in Buenos Aires.

"They're going to be happy for sure,'' Gaudio said. "But everybody on the street? I don't think so. That happens only in football.''

Still, the makeup of the semifinal field is big news back home. And Henman is making headlines in the London tabloids, filling space normally taken by stories about miracle diets and two-headed babies.

Yes, it's all a bit hard to believe.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press