Tres Bizarre A French Open rife with psychodrama if not great matches produced two unexpected champions, Gaston Gaudio and Anastasia Myskina

June 13, 2004

The wave? Now? Couldn't they see they weren't helping? Guillermo
Coria squinted up at the stands at Roland Garros late Sunday
afternoon and took in the swirl of Argentine flags that had
turned the place into Little Buenos Aires. He waited. The wave
circled the stadium again and again, everyone standing and
throwing his arms up to the perfect sky. No, he didn't need this.
The cramps had set in, and he was so close: up two sets to none,
4-3 in the third. Two games away from the French Open title. Two
games from living up to his nickname, El Mago (the Wizard), and
dispelling his three-year-old reputation as a steroid cheat. The
wave circled around his head, chewing up precious minutes. Then,
across the net, Coria saw his outclassed opponent, Gaston
Gaudio, do something strange.

Gaudio dropped his racket, smiled and began to applaud. Coria
hesitated, grudgingly tapped one hand on his racket, and with
that all his magic disappeared. Gaudio won eight straight points,
and Coria's expected coronation became Grand Guignol. The French
Open is the most perverse Grand Slam event, but not even the
Marquis de Sade could have imagined this: Racked by cramps,
Coria, the third seed and this season's king of clay, lost the
third set, could barely move in the fourth and squandered two
match points in the fifth. After taking a 7-6 lead, a stunned
Gaudio did another strange thing. He opened his mouth wide and
laughed. "Yes, because it was more like a movie," said the
44th-ranked player. "And I don't even know it, but I'm the star."

Si, at least for one glorious day. It had been 70 years since a
man saved match point and won the French Open. But at 6:46 p.m.
on Sunday, Gaudio, the least accomplished of a surging band of
Argentine men, slashed a final crosscourt backhand to beat the
most talented one, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6, in the first
all-Gaucho major final. Gaudio hurled his racket into the
bellowing crowd and screamed. Coria hugged him at net, walked
over to his chair and shattered his racket against the terre
battue. He has always insisted on his innocence since testing
positive for nandrolone in 2001 and being suspended from the tour
for seven months, and he'd seen this match, this first tango in
Paris, as a chance to change the subject at last. "I was dreaming
of this situation," said the 22-year-old Coria, tears coursing
down his face. "To see that my body let me down and my nerves let
me down ... I want to come out of this story."

That reaction couldn't have been more appropriate to the 2004
French Open. What the tournament lacked in great tennis, it made
up for in psychodrama. Whether because of familiarity, friendship
or intense national pride, the all-Argentine men's final and
Saturday's all-Russian women's final overwhelmed everyone
involved. "We're going through something that is absolutely
unprecedented," Coria said on Friday. "Argentina is going to be
celebrated throughout the world for a few days because we've done
something wonderful."

Well, yes and no. The last two all-American and all-Belgian
women's finals did little to promote the game elsewhere, and in
the U.S., anyway, TV ratings for the French Open men's and
women's finals were abysmal. In that respect the tournament did
tennis no favors. Two weeks ago, remember, the ATP tour rolled
into Paris looking to build on the narrative begun by last
summer's Grand Slam champions, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer
and Andy Roddick. What it got was a runner-up who reminded
everyone of its flawed drug-testing policy and a 25-year-old
champion who gives every indication of being a one-hit wonder.
Wimbledon can't come soon enough.

The men's consolation? They aren't the women. Once known for
great rivalries and fiery matches, the women barely seemed
interested in competing in Paris. Injuries and illness have
sapped the WTA tour, but that hardly explains the limp departures
of Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and, most
pathetically, French hero Amelie Mauresmo, like Coria a No. 3
seed and tournament favorite. In the quarterfinals Mauresmo took
one look at Elena Dementieva, against whom she had a 5-2 record,
and retreated 6-4, 6-3. Suddenly it seemed as if the entire
women's game had come down with the vapors.

And that was before Anastasia Myskina skunked Dementieva 6-1, 6-2
in one of the worst finals in Open history. Myskina had flummoxed
Williams and Capriati with her booming backhand and off-speed
junk to set up a meeting with her childhood friend. "It's going
to be a nervous match," she had predicted. She wasn't kidding. In
the locker room beforehand, Myskina wept. Fortunately, her
opponent was even more fragile. Dementieva was so shaken during
the final that she had trouble seeing the ball and breathing. Her
serve has always resembled something constructed out of popsicle
sticks and glue, and on Saturday it collapsed. After
double-faulting to go down 2-4, 0-15 in the second set,
Dementieva screamed, "I hate my serve!" Explaining her
disintegration after the match, she, too, started to cry.

At 22 Dementieva still has time to get over it. So does Coria,
who mounted the podium stairs on Sunday like a man going to the
guillotine. "At 22," said Argentine tennis legend Guillermo
Vilas, "there are no big prices to pay."

For a player of 25, it's different; everyone knows his prime is
nearly past. Gaudio's father, Norberto, introduced him to tennis,
and when Gaston was 16, Norberto almost died of a heart attack
right before his son's eyes. Gaston put down his racket and
stayed near his dad for three months, "watching while he was
sleeping and seeing if he is breathing or not," he says. To have
his father, back home in Buenos Aires, alive to see him win a
major "is everything for me," Gaudio said on Sunday. "I don't
have the time to be with him right now and give him a big hug and
... ah ... I start to cry now."

Fade to black. This was Paris, not Hollywood, and the best French
films always leave you in tears.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN STRING FLING Gaudio let loose after taking the all-Argentinefinal. COLOR PHOTO: THOMAS COEX/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (INSET) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN WORTH A KISS Before Myskina's triumph no Russian woman had everwon a major.