The stuff of dreams

Published : Jun 19, 2004 00:00 IST

In the end, even Gaudio (left, with the French Open trophy), fashioner of the miracle, could not quite comprehend what he had accomplished. So he said: "I will have to calm down and go to my hotel, lie on my bed, and just think what I have done". Maybe he will have thought of his extraordinary journey, from sporting hell to heaven. Of a dream finally lived. And maybe then, he too will have, alone in his room, begun to weep. For the man he was and the player he has become, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

TO understand the courage of Gaston Gaudio, to comprehend the astonishing journey of this 25-year-old Argentine, to grasp even partially the enormity of this reasonable player's 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6 win over Guillermo Coria, we must try and walk in his steps on French Open final day.

When Gaudio wakes in the morning, he may check ten times the tension in his racquets, a nervous study in fiddle and fidget; he will listen to last-minute instructions from his coach; he might fall to his knees in desperate prayer. And perhaps for a moment he will sit alone and let his mind wander to where it should not go but where it naturally will.

Like with so many athletes on the cusp of greatness, Gaudio has arrived at a crossroad. When his dream, one that he has carried from childhood, that has sustained and driven him through adulthood, ceases to be a dream. He finds himself in that exquisite position where the fantasies that invaded his night, of being in a Grand Slam final, of being the centre of his sporting world, begin to be lived.

No longer are the images make-believe. Now, in the basement of a stadium, Gaudio can actually hear the sound of an expectant audience awaiting his presence; he can reach out and touch the cup that perhaps he once held tightly in his sleeping hands. It is a beautiful moment. It is also terrifying.

Gaudio does not know anything but tennis. It defines him, at least to the world. He is not a bad player, but hardly extraordinary. He has once been to the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament; he has won only two career titles.

Gaudio has the face of a fallen angel and a backhand that resembles Monet's brush. But it is his self-belief that is in question. He sees a psychologist to help him unclutter his mind; still, last year, in Hamburg, at a changeover, Coria looks at him and pounds his heart, as if to say Gaudio has none. There were words exchanged in the locker room and Gaudio says that insult has been talked through. But he will not have forgotten it.

Because now he must play this Coria, this El Mago (The Magician) in the final. This Coria who is the chosen one, who has been named after Vilas, their legendary predecessor who they pay homage to with every stroke; this Coria who has won 37 of 38 clay matches since last year's French Open, this Coria whose name the engraver has surely been practising.

It is all too much for the human mind. After the match Gaudio will say victory was like "I touch heaven". But first the hell.

After the semi-final, Gaudio wept. Now before the final, he sweats. He sees John McEnroe and grabs him. "I was talking with Mac before the match and just asking for some advice. Because I was too nervous and I was (asking) him what I should do. Because I'm suffering before the match and it didn't even start". It is a plea for help.

Sometimes in all the images flashing across our TV screens, the winning goals, the soaring sixes, the champion's dribble and hero's punch, we forget how difficult it all is. Just to step on a court and bare yourself before the world. We forget the fear, the indecision, the insecurity, the anxious voices careening around the head, and the sheer will just not to vomit on the stairs to a stadium.

Why does V. V. S. Laxman lie down on the dressing room floor and listen to music before he bats; why do tennis players sit in locker rooms and fuss with their guts endlessly; why do players of all sports read notes before they go out, or pray, or hyperventilate like scared old men, or repeatedly re-tie their laces? Forget winning, just being there is not easy.

In Adelaide, last year, Sourav Ganguly bravely admitted that when he went out to bat in the second innings he could not see the ball for the first few deliveries. Pressure suffocates the mental process, it dries the mouth, and evidently blurs the slight. In Paris, after her 1-6, 2-6 disintegration in the women's final, Elena Dementieva is his echo: "I couldn't even, you know, clearly see the ball".

Always sportspeople must grapple with the mysteries of the mind. Of all opponents, it is the demons floating inside an over-worked brain that require subduing. Recently, the brilliant golfer Karrie Webb, who rediscovered her form after months of surprising failure, said: "I started off (my career) winning. I never had to learn to get to that point (when things go bad) and how to deal with everything like that." She believed somehow she would always win and was unready for collapse.

Players who have walked the fields of greatness before still tighten. Imagine Gaudio, and Coria, and Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina, each one a first-timer in a Grand Slam final. Gaudio is not the only one affected. Every one of the four French Open finalists tasted that dry, blood-like metallic flavour that is dread. Every one of them weeps. And only the cynical remain unmoved.

Myskina and Dementieva, Moscow girls, the same age, know each other from a time before even braces. Then they played for a pizza. Now, aware no Russian woman has won a Grand Slam final, they battle for history.

Myskina came back from a set and a break down to Alicia Molik; saved a match-point against Svetlana Kuznetsova, outplayed Venus Williams. She has nerve. Yet on final day her face is lined with tears, before the match even begins. She cannot breathe. The trainer arrives to help her. "I was really emotional, I was really nervous", she says. When she wins, she says in charmingly fractured English: "It's one of the dream. I'm still shaking."

Dementieva cannot stop shaking, even on court She is where she has wanted to be all her life but it is a test more arduous than anything her imagination dared manufacture. "I was waiting for this moment all my life", she said, "(but I) just couldn't handle the pressure." Then, she weeps.

A day later, in the same seat, a grown man is breaking down. Coria has lost one set all tournament; he is up two sets to love in the final. Reward for hard work and redemption for having been found guilty of taking nandrolone some years ago is a set away.

Then he cramps. He is tired, but also suddenly edgy, his mind helping tighten his body. "I became nervous", he said. "It was new for me. I had the experience of other tournaments, but I couldn't control this nervousness at that moment". He succumbs. Then he, too, weeps.

Dementieva knows few will remember that she must have displayed sufficient valour to beat six women in Paris, among them Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo. Coria will carry a similar memory. He was brilliant, till it mattered most. It is unfair, but it is also fair. To win is one thing, to win it all rightfully takes more.

Dementieva and Coria remind us that sport at the highest level is brutal but testing, as it should be. That for all the often obscene prize money and disproportionate fame handed to athletes, greatness is quite another matter. It takes some earning. Winning tour titles is splendid, but the gateway to history is the Grand Slam. Only the strong pass through.

Coria had 23 break points to Gaudio's 15, but could not win; he served for the match but could not close it; he had two match points but could not take them. He had courage undoubtedly but not enough of it, and his failure, and that of the far more brittle Dementieva, makes us appreciate more the success of men and women who bent but did not break under pressure.

It's why Gaudio may never win anything of note ever again, but he has a memory of a sunlit June day so powerful that it will sustain him forever. His conquer was not over Coria, but himself. This is a champion.

He was ranked No.44, and no lower ranked player had won here since Gustavo Kuerten (then No.66) in 1997. He was unseeded. And for the first two sets he played like an impostor. No player ever has lost the first set of a French final 6-0 and won. Gaudio does not know that statistic but he must feel it.

Late into the second set, completely overwhelmed, he was feeling the agony of public embarrassment. "I was suffering too much", said Gaudio later. "I was telling my coach that I want to leave, I don't want to be here. I prefer to lose in the first round and to not be here in the final and making this, you know?" This idiot of himself?

We will never quite know what happened to Gaudio, how he suddenly found strength of character, how he abruptly shrugged off adversity, how he rediscovered his lost game, because the processes of the human mind are unfathomable and often beyond articulation.

When the crowd started its wave, and screamed its support, he says he relaxed, began to "enjoy it more". It's the best explanation he could find that day.

In the end, even Gaudio, fashioner of the miracle, could not quite comprehend what he had accomplished. So he said: "I will have to calm down and go to my hotel, lie on my bed, and just think what I have done". Maybe he will have thought of his extraordinary journey, from sporting hell to heaven. Of a dream finally lived. And maybe then, he too will have, alone in his room, begun to weep. For the man he was and the player he has become.

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