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Final hinged on mental game

6/6/2004

PARIS -- Guillermo Coria, shuffling around on the red clay like a duffer playing doubles at the local club, was serving softballs with his feet flat on the baseline. When Gaston Gaudio flicked a drop shot, Coria, whose speed can be breathtaking, stood stone still.

A queasiness came over the 15,000 people gathered at Court Philippe Chatrier. It was like watching a wounded bird struggle in the jaws of a powerful predator. It seemed Coria, who suffered severe cramps in his left leg late in the third set, was on the verge of retiring, as he did earlier this year against Andy Roddick in the Miami final due to what turned out to be kidney stones.

And then after walking through the fourth set, Coria's lithe legs seemed to come back to him. He managed to challenge his fellow Argentine, to the extent that he wound up with two match points. But in the end, Coria didn't have enough left.

Gaudio won, improbably, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6 on Sunday. His first Grand Slam singles title was his first victory of the season. Gaudio became the third unseeded champion here at Roland Garros.

It was as curious a championship match as you will ever see. Bizarre, surreal, ridiculous -- they all work. It was, even in retrospect, difficult to comprehend.

"It was a roller coaster," said 1977 champion Guillermo Vilas, an Argentine. "I never saw anything like that in tennis match. I didn't move from my seat."

Gaudio threw his racket high and far into the superb Parisian late-afternoon sun after the victory and high-fived the front row patrons sitting behind the red geraniums. After hugging with his support group in the stands, he sat on his courtside chair and alternately cried and laughed.

"It's like too much for me," Gaudio said. "It was like a movie -- it was like too much.

"I don't know how much match is going to change my life. I can't believe it yet. The only thing I know is that I won."

Coria's game has Grand Slam quality, but his spare frame has failed him in the past. Coming into the tournament, despite his sensational record on clay, there were the usual questions about Coria's fragility. Could his 22-year-old body carry him through the seven matches required of a champion? In seven events the past 2½ years, Coria has retired or allowed a walkover seven times, often in major matches.

The cramps that visited Coria on Sunday, he said, were attributable as much to anxiety as physical stress.

"I have to stop thinking about the cramps," Coria said, through a translator. "Until the match, I kept the anxiety under control. I had two match points, [Gaudio] saved them. He was very bright because he made me play and move around a lot. He won the match, himself.

"But I feel if I hadn't gotten hurt, it would have been a different story. In the next opportunity, I have to avoid to put pressure on myself. This was the cause of my loss -- I thought too much."

It was justice of the poetic kind for Gaudio. He was flogged in the first two sets and was plodding dutifully to his execution, when Coria seemed to give up. Clearly, as Coria's health deteriorated, Gaudio had to think the match was his. And then, when Coria started running like a rabbit again, well, what was Gaudio thinking then?

"The first two sets, I was like so scared," Gaudio admitted. "I think that if you play with a guy who's injured, of course it helps you. It helped me for the fourth set because I was almost done. In the fifth set, he start to run like the beginning of the match.

"It's complicated to play a guy you don't know how to play," Gaudio said. "Maybe he run, maybe not. You just put ball in the court, and he make a forehand winner. What do you do with that?"

At the start, "El Mago" was every bit the magician. Coria won the first eight games of the match. Skimming over the red clay behind the baseline, he ran everything down. And, on the rare occasions that he was out of position, he'd knock off a lightning volley or a soft-but-sharply-angled forehand.

Then Coria injured his leg trying to get a drop shot late in the third set. He eventually lost that set, and early in the fourth called several times for the trainer, who administered cream and a massage. Coria took on fuel, bananas and water, and adopted a sort of wait-and-see, rope-a-dope strategy. While appearing to concede the set, Coria seemed to be stalling.

"They told me I had to wait 10 minutes after the cream, and then I could move more," Coria said. "This is why I didn't run in the fourth set. I was absolutely exhausted. I felt completely powerless. It was the dream of my life, so I fought to the end."

When the fifth set began, Coria was bouncing up and down and, slowly, his speed seemed to return. He was still trying to end points quickly with his forehand and his serves didn't have any weight behind them, but Coria hung in there, sort of.

At 5-4, Coria served for the match, but was broken. At 5-all, Coria needed four break points to convert. Serving for the match at 6-5, Coria had two match points, but missed with a backhand and then a forehand. With Coria serving to level the fifth set at 7-all, his ground strokes deserted him and Gaudio stroked a confident backhand winner on match point.

While the match was riveting in a gut-wrenching sort of way, it was hardly an aesthetic success. Good theater, bad tennis. The nerves kept getting in the way.

This followed the numbing women's final, in which Anastasia Myskina took apart Elena Dementieva, 6-1, 6-2, in the most one-sided final since 1988. If watching Dementieva serve is like watching Shaquille O'Neal shoot free throws, as ESPN analyst Mary Carillo says, watching Gaston Gaudio would be like watching O'Neal in a spelling bee.

There is a common denominator, of course.

Both finals involved players from the same country who were intimately aware of their opponent's game. From the time when they played for a pizza at Moscow's Spartek club, to Saturday's match with a purse of $1,032,000, Myskina almost always managed to prevail. Coria, the No. 3 seed, had beaten the unseeded Gaudio in three of four previous matches and before the injury, you never had a sense Gaudio had a chance.

And if it all seemed familiar, it was. Familiarity, apparently, breeds dismal tennis.

In the 2003 women's final here, Justine Henin-Hardenne smoked fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters 6-0, 6-4. In 2002, two Spaniards met in the men's final with a nervous Juan Carlos Ferrero barely able to summon up a set against Albert Costa, while in the women's all-American final Serena Williams beat older sister Venus 7-5, 6-3. Because of the emotion involved, the Williams-Williams matches have not been artistic successes. Last year's Wimbledon final did go three sets, but Serena disposed of an injured Venus with a 6-2 score in the final frame.

After Sunday's match, Gaudio told the crowd that Coria would win the tournament next year, and he might be right. Coria was a semifinalist here last year and with his finals appearance this year is tracing a trajectory similar to Ferrero, who broke through here last year.

Maybe it was the wave that freed Gaudio.

With Coria leading 4-3 in the third set and Gaudio two games from defeat, the crowd produced a credible wave that spilled around the vast stadium. Gaudio walked to the baseline from his changeover chair and laughed -- for the first time in the match. He applauded the crowd. The momentum swung.

"He was lost, completely lost," Vilas said. "Maybe it was the wave. Amazing match, just amazing."

"From that moment," Gaudio said, "I enjoy the match more. I was so nervous and making so many mistakes. I told my coach I didn't want to be there. I was trying to relax a little more and enjoy the moment. And at that moment, I finally did it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.