French Open Memories, #7: Gaston Gaudio d. Guillermo Coria, 2004

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The 2004 French Open final was a hard-fought battle between two players that loved the clay. (AP)

There's nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there's also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.

From the distance of 14 years, the 2004 men’s final at Roland Garros feels like a match from another era, another century, another world. 

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 the following month, Roger Federer would win his second Wimbledon and begin his record-setting streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances. The next year in Paris, Rafael Nadal would play and win the first of his 10 (and counting) French Open titles.

Over the next decade, Federer and Nadal would accustom us 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 in Court Philippe Chatrier. As the Argentine journalist Sebastian Fest told Doug Robson for Tennis Magazine in 2010, that final "was an open air psychologist session shown on TV around the world.” If any Grand Slam final could be said to have been cursed, it was this one.

Coria, nicknamed El Mago ("The Magician"), was the heavy favorite. He was the king of clay in the spring of 2004, and his official coronation in Paris nothing more than a formality. Post-Gustavo Kuerten and pre-Rafa, Coria’s mix of deceptive speed and delicate shotmaking was the state of the art on dirt. He was a little, light 23-year-old who walked on his toes, danced across the court, and put the ball on a string.

Coria 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. He was motivated by a desire to prove himself after being, in his mind, unfairly suspended for seven months in 2001 after 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 they “were like cat and dog.”

After two sets, it looked more like cat and mouse. 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 bore us with this “mismatch.”

WATCH—Highlights from the 2004 French Open final between Gaudio and Coria: 

By the middle of the third set, 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, 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 permanently altered. Gaudio 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, Franco Davin. Coria, his rhythm 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 (and surely psychosomatic) leg cramp, he could barely move. 

Or, as Jim Courier put it for the Tennis Channel, “He was choking and choking and choking.”

Coria took his hands away from his neck long enough build 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 podium. Later, his family walked away from Chatrier in tears. 

“Losing the French Open final with two match points isn’t easy against anyone,” Gaudio said. “Imagine losing to me.”

Coria would never reach another Slam final, and by 2006 he had all but vanished. That year he would lose eight times in the first round; suffering from shoulder problems and service yips that would never be cured, he averaged nearly 12 double faults per match. He retired in 2009 at 27.

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 ’05, in a sort of cosmic comeuppance, Gaudio led David Ferrer 4-0 in the fifth set before losing six straight games. By 2007, Gaudio was outside the Top 100. By 2008, he was out of the game. 

Was the 2004 French Open 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. Today Gaudio-Coria looks like a struggle to the death, not just of two players, but of an era that will live in the shadows of what came after it. The sport could only become more golden from there.

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