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Nalbandian's game shows great diversity

6/4/2004

PARIS -- Never before have we seen such a strange Grand Slam championship -- in both the men's and women's events. Yet, what has been a horrible tournament for U.S. tennis has proven a great event for Argentine tennis. Three Argentine men are in Friday's semifinals.

With so many Argentine men at the upper echelon of tennis, this might spark an even greater boom of tennis in Argentina. It certainly marks a new era in the sport itself. It's no accident that these men have reached this level at this year's French Open.

The first semifinal is an all-Argentine affair, pitting David Nalbandian against Gaston Gaudio.

Nalbandian made his presence felt in the majors suddenly in 2002 -- shocking everyone by reaching his first final on grass at Wimbledon. He gained success on hard court, but suffered a disappointing loss in the semifinals at last year's U.S. Open. Now, he seems ready to move to another level and consistently make his mark at the majors.

Nalbandian's weapons might not be as lethal as those of other players, but he has every weapon in the game. Nalbandian has what 99 percent of the players want: the serve, the groundstrokes, a front-court game and movement.

Against Gaudio, whose game Nalbandian knows well despite never having played him in an ATP tournament or major event, it's going to come down to execution. Both players have the game to reach the final and win this championship, but the player who carries out his game plan best will win.

Gaudio has a very one-dimensional game, which consists of playing the typical South American baseline style. But he doesn't do it as well as Nalbandian. Gaudio's not as powerful off the ground either, but he might have an edge in quickness. He doesn't have the variety of play to come into the net like Nalbandian.

Gaudio does, however, have one of the best backhands on tour, along with Gustavo Kuerten and Andre Agassi. In the quarterfinals, Lleyton Hewitt made the mistake of playing too much to Gaudio's backhand, and Hewitt's net approaches were too predictable. Nalbandian won't make those mistakes. Nalbandian will not only play a variety of shots but also will work over Gaudio's forehand.

If this match comes down to a crucial few points or a deciding fifth set, the mental edge goes to Nalbandian. He's been in this situation before and should handle it better than Gaudio, who is in his first major semifinal. Expect Nalbandian to win in four sets.

In the second semifinal, the only way Britain's Tim Henman can advance to the final is if the best Argentine, Guillermo Coria, is off of his game and Henman plays close to the top of his game. Henman would stand a better chance if they were only playing best of three sets, rather than the five demanded in a major. Over the course of a five-set match, Coria will have too much time to dissect Henman's game.

Henman's coach, Paul Annacone, who also coached Pete Sampras, told me that for Henman to be successful on this surface, he can't stand back and pretend to be a clay-court baseliner. Henman has to pick and choose when to attack. That includes serving and volleying, chipping and charging on the return of serve and forcing the issue during ground-stroke rallies.

Henman's run to the semifinal, though not a fluke, is certainly an overachievement due in part to a good draw and some good tennis on the Briton's part. He's going into this match thinking he could win, but it's likely just wishful thinking. Because, unfortunately for Henman, although he might be the best volleyer in the game today, Coria might be the best counter-puncher on clay.

For such a small guy, Coria hits with a lot of pace, plus he can handle that pace in return. And he can do it at a dead run. Combine that with tremendous speed, and it makes him the most dangerous clay-courter on tour.

Of the two semifinal matches, this will be the most entertaining because of the contrast in styles. It's a classic baseliner against a classic serve and volleyer on a slow surface that is more conducive to patience and long rallies. If Henman were to win this match it would be the biggest upset of the year, but it would be great for tennis. Instead, it's likely going to be Coria winning in straight sets.

MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.