Coria, Vilas, Gaudio at Roland Garros 2004

From Tennis Confidential II by Paul Fein:

If 1970s champion Guillermo Vilas is a god in Argentina, Guillermo Coria is the current people’s choice. He’s so beloved in his homeland that when he appears in restaurants he gets standing ovations? Ironically he’s far less popular with other players, including his fellow countrymen whom he nearly always (23-5) beats. Coria has been known to mock his opponents after he wins and seldom, until recently, gives them credit when he loses.

Like oil and water, Coria and Gaston Gaudio will never mix. They are too different. They come from different family backgrounds, and they have different approaches to tennis and life. Like Andre Agassi, Coria was pressured since he was bon to be the greatest tennis player of this generation. His dad, a tennis coach, named him after Vilas; the cake for one of his first birthdays was racquet-shaped; and he has played tournaments since he was too young to remember. Gaudio enjoyed football and rugby in his childhood, and only picked up tennis because his older brother was playing it at the same time. He discovered he liked it and was good at it. Gaudio decided to turn pro only after his father had a heart attack and his family experienced money problems: he thought tennis could be an excellent way of making money to help his family.

Like Connors, Coria needs and feeds on the rivalries, the feuds to feel his competitiveness. His anger pushes him. He looks for other players to beat. Only someone with a superiority complex would rent a hotel for the anticipated victory celebrations before the 2004 French Open final, as Coria did. Lo and behold, he lost to heavy underdog, No. 44-ranked Gaudio, who was so shocked that he confided,

“I don’t know how I win. I can’t believe it yet. This is like a movie for me. And I don’t even know it, but I’m the star.”

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Mary Pierce, Roland Garros 2000

By Alan Tengrove, Australian Tennis magazine, July 2000:

A new Mary Pierce, more complete as a person and a tennis player, achieved an “impossible dream” at a dramatic French Open.

There were good reasons for Mary Pierce‘s self-pity. A father she loved, but who mistreated her in his obsession to make her a champion. A nervous temperament that often brought her undone. A part-French background that caused her more anguish than joy because she failed to live up to the expectations of a public thirsting for glory.

All changed at Roland Garros when Pierce, the No. 6 seed, became the first French woman to win he national championship since Françoise Durr in 1967. At last she did justice to her considerable talent. She out-hit three-time champion Monica Seles in a quarter-final, tipped out top seed Martina Hingis in a semi, and out-classed fifth seed Conchita Martinez 6-2 7-5 in the final.

With a partially disabled Lindsay Davenport upset in the first round, and an under-prepared Venus Williams eliminated by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (who later lost to Martinez), there was no doubt Pierce deserved the title. Just as she did the doubles title shared with Hingis. At 25, and in her 11th year as a professional, she played the finest tennis of her career.

It seemed so much more than six years ago that she reached her first French Open final after surprising Steffi Graf. Then, a bundle of nerves, she was no match for Sanchez Vicario.

Seven months later, when she beat Sanchez Vicario in the Australian Open final, anything seemed possible. France hoped she would inherit Graf’s throne, but year after year Pierce was disappointing. For five years she failed to pass the fourth round at Roland Garros. She flopped at other French tournaments.
Her former fans felt let down, were irritated by her mannerisms, and turned against her, teating her with derision. She was overshadowed by younger players, such as Hingis, the Williams sisters and Davenport. And three years ago, disenchanted, she stopped representing her adopted country in the Fed Cup.

To win the French Open was her dream – an impossible dream, it had seemed.

“Everything that’s happened here in the past, everything that I’ve been through, there’s just so many emotions that attach to this tournament,” she said after heer unexpected triumph. “to win is amazing.”

She was 13 when her American father became dissatisfied with the attitude of the USTA and decided to move the family to France, where her mother was born. Pierce hated to leave her school and friends in Florida, but had no choice.
In Paris she was separated from her family and lived in a dormitory at Roland Garros.

“I couldn’t speak French. I didn’t know anybody? I didn’t have any friends and I was by myself,” she recalled. “It was really tough. I probably cried every night, trying to fall asleep. It was tough practicing.”

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Guga Kuerten, Roland Garros 1997

From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein

“He’s just what tennis needs”

raves hard to please John McEnroe. Indeed, Gustavo Kuerten is the proverbial “nice guy” without being bland or boring, and a colorful personality minus boorish antics. Throw in spectacular athleticism, and you can see why everyone is going ga-ga over Guga.

Crowd loved Kuerten’s smiling insouciance during his fairy-tale French Open. Chants of “Guga, Guga” everberated in Stade Roland Garros and buoyed the unseeded, unheralded Brazilian to one of the Open Era’s most shocking and exciting Grand Slam triumphs. The sixty-sixth-ranked Kuerten, who had never advanced past an ATP tour quarterfinal and was only 2-7 on clay this year, knocked off former French champions Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Sergi Bruguera for the prestigious title.

The fact that twenty-year-old Guga looks like a cartoon caricature endears him to fans even more.
His stringbean body, ingenuous face, unkept curls, and eye-catching attire give him the most distinctive appearance of any top player since the young Agassi. Kuerten says his gaudy gold and electric blue soccer-style outfits – which prompted French Tennis Federation president Christian Bimes to advocate a stricter dress code – “show my personality.” In Cincinnati, he promised his clothes would be flashier than Agassi’s.

When the charismatic Kuerten made history as the first Brazilian man to capture a Grand Slam singles title, he became the new national hero and ignited a tennis boom in Brazil. Tennis racket sales jumped 40 percent in his hometown of Florianopolis during the French Open fortnight, and manufacturers sold $3 million of his trademak outfits in Brazil in the week following the tournament.

“Guga has brought so much happiness to the Brazilian people. You can’t imagine,”

says Diana Gabanyi, his publicity director.

“Everyone from the taxi drive to the people at the bus station to the people in his hometown talks about him. Everyone loves him. His personality and smile captivate people. He’s winning and he’s taking Brazil’s name throughout the world. Right now Guga is as big as soccer star Ronaldo. That’s incredible!”

When I asked Guga what it’s like being the hot new star in men’s tennis, he laughed and modestly downplayed it.

“My life has changed a bit, but I don’t see myself as a big star. I’m too young to be a star. I don’t want to change. I just want to keep playing tennis and enjoy it.”

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From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the time day two was done at Roland Garros, the men’s tournament was in complete disarray. On that second day, both Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker lost. Never in Grand Slam tennis history had the top two seeds lost in the first round.

Both losses were shockingly decisive. Edberg, playing at eleven in the morning, acted as if he were in a different time zone, winning a grand total of seven games against Sergi Bruguera, a Spanish teenager who had shown much promise in the ppast twelve months. Bruguera didn’t even have to play very well to win this match, though. Edberg’s performance was summed up perfectly by his coach, Tony Pickard: Asked what he thought had happened, Pickard shrugged and said,

“There’s not a word I can say about this match that’s printable.”

Becker didn’t play nearly as poorly as Edberg, but he ran into a very hot, very talented player. Goran Ivanisevic was the same age as Bruguera – nineteen – but a completely different player. The Spaniard was a clay-courter all the way, a kid with solid ground strokes who would make a lot of money from the game without ever being great at it. Ivanisevic had greatness in him. He was from Split, Yugoslavia, a six-foot-five lefty with a serve that could be past you before you knew it was off the racquet. He could play superbly or horrendously no matter what the surface. He had been tossed out of the European Championships at the age of fourteen and, by his own admission, had a tendency to tank when things went wrong.
On this day, nothing went wrong. He beat Becker in four sets, playing, as Becker put it, “completely out of his mind.”

While the men were losing their two most glamorous names on the tournament’s second day, the women were watching it all, feeling just a little bit envious. Upsets of the Becker-Edberg magnitude just didn’t happen in the women’s game. There simply wasn’t enough depth for the top players to lose that early.
In the fifty-six Grand Slam tournaments of her career, Chris Evert had lost before the quarterfinals twice – in the third round at Wimbledon in 1983 and in the third round of her last French Open, in 1988. In the 1980s, Martina Navratilova never lost before the fourth round – and lost that early only three times in thirty-seven Slams. Steffi Graf had not lost before the quarterfinals of a Slam since 1985, when, as a fifteen-year-old, she had lost in the fourth round of the French to Evert.

Slowly that was changing.

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Arantxa Sanchez had been having an inconsistent year, and few people gave her much chance to defend her title. But even fewer people thought that Mercedes Paz, her doubles partner, would be the person to knock her out of the tournament.

Paz was a month shy of twenty-four and had been on tour for six years. People said she could really be a factor if she ever got in shape, but at the end of 1989 she weighed 184 pounds. Even at five feet ten, that was a lot of weight to be carrying. She had finally gotten herself on a training regimen at the start of the year and had lost twenty-five pounds. She was still bulky and lacked quickness, but the difference in her game was evident.

Sanchez, meanwhile, was going through a difficult time. She had changed coaches earlier in the year, hiring Mike Estep to replace her longtime coach, Juan Nunez. Estep had a simple philosophy when it came to coaching women: anybody can attack if they want to; he had made Martina Navratilova more aggressive when he began coaching her in 1983, getting her to come in behind her second serve, and he had preached the same kind of game to every player he had worked since then.
At forty-one, Estep was thinking it might be time to get off the tennis merry-go-round. But IMG had called to say Sanchez was looking for a coach. They were willing to meet Estep’s financial terms – which included first-class airfare for him and his wife Barbara – and wanted him to meet with Sanchez. he did, liked her and her family, and took the job. Right now, though, Sanchez was caught in the middle. Part of her understood why Estep wanted her to be more aggressive, but a major part of her still felt more comfortable hugging the baseline. An indecisive player is almost always a losing player.

“What you can say?” Sanchez said in her fractured English after the match. “Last year I win there; this year, I don’t. It happens.”

She was exactly right. What Sanchez had done in 1989 was extraordinary. The problem was, in tennis, everyone demanded that the extraordinary be repeated over and over again.

Yannick Noah, Roland Garros 1983

From Game, set and deadline by Rex Bellamy:

The men’s singles champion of France is a Frenchman – for the first time since 1946. Yannick Noah, aged 23, subdued Mats Wilander, last year’s winner, by 6-2 7-5 7-6 in two hours and 24 minutes here yesterday. We could only guess what was going on inside the inscrutable Wilander – a lad of 18 who was trying to resist not only Noah and most of the sell-out crowd of 17,000, but also the will of a nation.

Wilander’s gamee told us all we needed to know: he was far more erratic than he could afford to be. He could not keep enough rallies going, nor had the attacking resources to finish enough of them in his own favour.

This was a triumph not only for Noah and France and Africa (while playing professional football in France, Noah’s father married a Frenchwoman), but also for clay-court tennis. For almost a decade – what might be called the Borg era – this tournament has been dominated by baseliners specializing in top-spin. They were mostly two-fisted on the backhand and their aim was to wear down their opponents and induce indiscretions.

This was a joylessly negative way to play tennis. By contrast, Noah is a throwback to the days when good athletes with the spirit of adventure in them could win here: as long as they had sound ground strokes, a reasonably sure touch, and the sense to know when to attack. Tennis the Noah way is exciting.

Noah was born in France, brought up in Cameroun, which was formerly under French administration, but returned to France in 1973 after Arthur Ashe had spotted him during a goodwill tour of Africa. Noah sports a mop-headed, braided hair-style. What matters most is that there is 6ft4 in and almost 13st of him, all of it arranged to produce maximum spring and strength and reach, plus a quivering energy that never seems to be totally in repose.

Noah is rather like Jimmy Connors in the Tarzan act he puts on when an important point has been won. At times there is a wild look about him, not least when he is pacing restlessly about the back of the court between points like a tiger impatient for dinner.

What extraordinary scenes there were when Wilander hit the last shot of the match, a wayward service return. The crowd had been simmering with excitement in bright, sultry heat, voicing thunderous roars of approval or collectively shushing themselves with a noise like the sea creeping up a shingle beach. At the end they boiled over – most spectacularly, Noah’s father, who leapt from a high wall at one end of the court and fell on his bottom with a thud.