- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

PARIS — For 1-1/2 sets yesterday, Tim Henman seemed poised to upset clay-court star Guillermo Coria and become the first Englishman in a French Open final since the 1930s.

And why not? If both defending champions could lose in the second round, if the women seeded Nos.2, 3 and 4 could lose on the same day, if Andre Agassi could lose to a player ranked 271st… then why couldn’t Henman add one more stunner?

His serving on, his volleys crisp, Henman parlayed an hour of spectacular play on his least favorite surface into a big lead against Coria. Then, suddenly, everything changed. Coria took 13 straight games, staved off a late comeback bid, and won 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, 7-5, setting up the first all-Argentine Grand Slam final.

Appropriately, No. 3 Coria’s opponent tomorrow will be an unseeded player, Gaston Gaudio, a 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-0 winner over yet another Argentine, No.8 David Nalbandian.

“It never crossed my mind that I could lose,” said Coria, a 2003 French Open semifinalist and winner of 37 of his last 38 matches on clay.

When he finished Henman, the 1999 Roland Garros junior champion walked off quickly, saying, “It would be crazy to start celebrating now, because Gaudio has exactly the same dream as me: He wants to win the French Open.”

Neither Coria, 22, nor Gaudio, 25, ever has played in a major final. One will be the French Open’s 11th first-time Slam champion in 16 years — and the first Argentine man to win a major title since Guillermo Vilas at the 1979 Australian Open. Both have been mentored by Vilas; Coria was named after him.

“It’s not because of me. They have done the hard work,” said Vilas, who watched from a third-row seat. “If I contributed something, then I’m happy.”

Similarly, today’s women’s final between No.6 Anastasia Myskina and No.9 Elena Dementieva will be the first all-Russian championship match at a major. They are making Slam final debuts, too; no Russian woman has won a major title.

Britain’s last male champion at a Grand Slam tournament was Fred Perry at Wimbledon in 1936 — something Henman is reminded of repeatedly as he comes oh-so-close on the All England Club’s grass. He’s been a semifinalist there four times, going 0-4.

Perry could play on clay, too, winning the 1935 French Open, losing in the final the next year. Another Briton, Bunny Austin, was the runner-up in Paris in 1937.

Henman, a serve-and-volleyer, never had been beyond the fourth round at another major until this week, and only 13 percent of his career match wins were on clay. Balls move slower than on grass or hard courts, giving opponents more time to calibrate shots, making it tough to charge to the net.

The French Open bedeviled attacking players from John McEnroe to Boris Becker to Stefan Edberg to Pete Sampras, who won a record 14 majors but only once made it as far as the semifinals in Paris.

But Henman — now working with Sampras’ former coach, Paul Annacone — managed to put it all together for five matches. Against Coria, who hadn’t lost a set in the tournament, Henman went ahead 6-3, 4-2 by playing flawlessly, even matching Coria stroke-for-stroke from the baseline.

“Playing the best clay-court player in the world, I make him look pretty ordinary,” Henman said. “But it’s a question of being able to do that for a long, long time.”

Serving at 4-3 in the second set, Henman went ahead 30-15 with a leaping overhead smash a la Sampras. And then, much to his dismay, Henman really began channeling Sampras on clay, dumping volleys into the net, moving a step too slowly, hanging his head after errors.

Coria’s passing shots started finding their marks, punctuated with shouts of “Vamos!”

“I was very focused. He seemed a little lost,” said Coria, who served a seventh-month drug suspension in 2001-02 for the steroid nandrolone and now is suing the maker of the dietary supplement he was taking.

With Coria up 3-0 in the fourth set, fans aching for a dramatic semifinal began rooting raucously for Henman. The women’s matches Thursday and Gaudio’s win all finished in straight sets with little flair.

“To have that support away from home is a little strange,” said Henman, who won five straight games for a 5-3 edge.

But serving for the set at 5-4, he double-faulted, couldn’t answer Coria’s deep forehand that skipped off the baseline, then pushed a volley out to get broken. That was part of a four-game, match-ending run for Coria, praised by Henman for “his speed, his athleticism, his consistency from the baseline.”

Like Coria, Gaudio prefers clay. He’s never been past the third round at another major, and his career winning percentage on clay (.665) is far better than on all other surfaces combined (.402).

Ranked 44th, Gaudio last won a title in 2002, and he’s been working with a psychologist. He got lost in the tiebreaker against Nalbandian, though, serving from the wrong side of the court. No one noticed until Nalbandian put a return into the net.

Nalbandian complained to the chair umpire.

“I made history,” Gaudio said, smiling. “It’s the first time something like that happened in the French Open.”

Just one of many firsts this year.

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