Deux: Death on the Dirt
Was it really just 10 years ago? The 2004 final at Roland Garros between Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Coria feels like a match from another age, another century, maybe even another planet.
In part, that’s because it really was played in a different time period. The all-Argentine affair would be the last of the pre-Golden Era major finals. Starting at Wimbledon the next month, Roger Federer would begin his record-setting streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances. The next year, Rafael Nadal would play and win his first French Open. Between the two of them, Roger and Rafa would triumph at 23 of the next 25 Slams, an unprecedented two-man run that lasted until 2011.
Along the way, Federer and Nadal would make us grow accustomed to Olympian mastery at the top of the men’s game. So it’s jarring now to look back and witness the gut-wrenching, cringe-inducing chaos that Gaudio and Coria, each of whom was contesting his first and last major final, served up to the public that day. As the Argentine journalist Sebastian Fest told Doug Robson in a piece on the match for Tennis Magazine in 2010, that final "was an open air psychologist session shown on TV around the world.”
Or, as the Tennis Channel rather brutally puts it in the video above, it was the day when Coria suffered the second-biggest choke in the history of tennis. The shy man nicknamed El Mago ("The Magician") was the heavy favorite. He had been the undisputed king of clay in 2004, and his official coronation in Paris seemed to be nothing more than a formality. You can get an idea of why in the clip; it’s fun, and sad, to see Coria dance across the clay again and show off his magical touch. Post-Guga and pre-Rafa, he was the state of the art on dirt. He had announced himself in Paris the previous year by upsetting Andre Agassi, and in 2004 he came to Roland Garros ranked a career-high No. 3. Coria was motivated by a desire to prove himself after being, in his mind unfairly, suspended for seven months in 2001 for testing positive for nandrolone.
“Lots of people insulted me in the face,” Coria told Robson, “and called me ‘doper’ for a stupid, contaminated vitamin pill. It’s maybe the reason I was a bit nervous [in the final]. I really wanted to win this tournament, to try to forget everything I have deep inside.”
With the 44th-ranked Gaudio across the net, surely Coria would have his moment of vindication. Not only was he the superior clay-courter, he also didn’t like Gaudio, and Gaudio didn’t like him. Their fellow Argentine, Juan Monaco, said that it was well known among his countrymen on tour that they “were like cat and dog.”
After two sets, it looked more like cat and mouse inside Court Philippe Chatrier. Coria won the first 6-0, the second 6-3, and showed no signs of relinquishing command through the early games of the third. TV commentators lamented having to show a “mismatch” between a Hall-of-Famer and a journeyman.
By the middle of the third, the Parisian fans were just as bored. True to form, they injected themselves into the action by doing a seemingly unstoppable version of the Wave. Gaudio welcomed the break in the action; he cracked his first smile of the afternoon, and applauded when it was over. Coria, in his first sign of nerves, was visibly bothered by the delay. He tried unsuccessfully to get the crowd to sit down and let him cross the finish line in peace.
Coria never made it. The atmosphere in the arena, and the demeanor of the players, had been altered irrevocably. Gaudio loosened up and began to play as if it the match were a lark; after winning important points, he would look up and share a laugh with his coach at the time, Franco Davin (Davin now works with Juan Martin del Potro). Coria, his momentum disturbed, tightened up and lost a 40-0 lead on his serve at 4-4. By the start of the third set, suffering from a sudden leg cramp, he could barely move.
Or, as Jim Courier puts it above, “He was choking and choking and choking.”
2004 was my first trip to Roland Garros as a writer, and I can remember thinking how cruel tennis could be in a situation like this. Coria was a man truly alone, baring all of his anxieties in front of the world. His coach, girlfriend, and family could only look on in agony from the stands. Perhaps even crueler, though, was the fact that, after staggering his way through the fourth set and serving balls that didn’t even reach the net, Coria fought through his nerves long enough to take a 4-2 lead in the fifth, serve for the match twice, and hold two match points. On those two points, Coria and Gaudio rallied until Coria finally pulled the trigger down the line. For most of that season, he had been pulling that same trigger and hitting his targets. This time, on both occasions, he missed wide by a few inches. He was just a fraction of a second, and a fraction of a nerve, late on each shot. His career would never be the same because of it.
After his loss, which came by the fittingly bizarre scores of 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6, Coria stared down, hollow-eyed, on the trophy stand. Later, his family could be seen in tears outside of Chatrier.
“Losing the French Open final with two match points isn’t easy against anyone,” Gaudio said. “Imagine losing to me.”
Most people, understandably, think of that loss as Coria’s Waterloo. He would never make another Slam final, and by 2006 he and his game had all but vanished. That year he would lose eight times in the first round and, suffering from shoulder problems and service yips that would never be cured, averaged nearly 12 double faults per match. His opening-round retirement at the ’06 U.S. Open would be Coria’s last appearance at a major for nearly two years. He retired in 2009, just 27 years old.
Yet in his press conference after the 2004 final, Coria maintained, credibly, that he would win the French Open someday. He somehow managed to reach the final of his very next event, on grass, two weeks later in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Even after shoulder surgery later in ’04, Coria remained the best clay-courter in the world, and he still held that title the following spring when he faced Rafael Nadal in the finals in Monte Carlo and Rome. But those two matches, both hard-fought and both won by Nadal, marked the changing of the dirt guard. The second, in Rome, was the true back-breaker, and career-ender, for Coria. He led 3-0 in the fifth set before losing 8-6 in the deciding tiebreaker, after five hours and 14 minutes. When Nadal went on to win the French Open in his first try, there was a new King of Clay. Coria knew his chances of redeeming himself in Paris had grown much slimmer.
It’s one thing for a big match to destroy the loser, but Gaudio-Coria did nothing to help the winner, either. “No, no, not me, it’s impossible, I don’t believe it,” were Gaudio’s first words during the trophy ceremony. It’s questionable whether Gaudio ever felt worthy of that moment.
Like Coria, Gaudio held it together through the following season; but also like his countryman, he wouldn’t win another title or reach another Grand Slam quarterfinal after 2005. At the French in 2005, in a sort of cosmic comeuppance, Gaudio led David Ferrer 4-0 in the fifth set before losing six straight games. At the Masters Cup in Shanghai he was double-bageled by Roger Federer. By 2007, Gaudio was outside the Top 100. By 2008, he was out of the game.
Had the 2004 French Open been cursed?
“That final took a lot of energy that maybe put a lot of expectations on us,” Gaudio told Robson. “Something changed after that.”
Tennis changed. The men’s game got better. From the distance of 10 years, Gaudio-Coria looks like a struggle to the death, not just of two players, but of an era that will always live in the shadows of what came after it. The sport could only become more golden from there.