Certainly, there have been happier moments in Johan Kriek's life -- but not many. Today, he was on his hands and knees on the center court of Roland Garros Stadium, kissing the red clay he has despised and avoided for so many years.
Kriek had just punched one last forehand volley past the lunge of Guillermo Vilas. And, when he realized that he had beaten the grand old man of clay, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4), to reach the semifinals of the French Open, he dropped to his knees, put his racket over his head and his lips on the ground.
"That may have been the toughest match of my life," Kriek said moments later. "I can't remember ever feeling pressure like that in my life. When he saved those three match points, he really got on a roll. It's like a dark cloud that comes over you. I was tight as a drum. I just had to hang in there."
To the amazement of almost everyone, Kriek, the No. 13 seed, did hang in. It was one of those classic French Open marathons, lasting 3 hours 45 minutes, with almost every twist imaginable.
Vilas dominated early and had three set points to go up two sets. Kriek hung on, pulled out the second set tie breaker and went up a break in the third. Vilas came back and forced another tie breaker. Kriek won it, led by 5-3 in the fourth and had three match points. Vilas saved them all. Kriek served for the match. Vilas broke him. Vilas led, 6-5. Kriek forced a tie breaker. Finally, the rollercoaster ride ended with Kriek's volley, advancing him to a semifinal match against top-seeded Ivan Lendl on Friday.
"He was very tough for me to play," said Vilas, of Argentina, who was seeded 12th. "He played such risky tennis. He played the ball short and made me come in. Then he passed me. He was always going for winners. A lot of times when a guy plays like that he's going to be missing. The guy didn't miss very much today."
This was about as strange a matchup as one could find. Vilas is the ultimate clay court specialist. He was the champion here in 1977 and has won more matches at Roland Garros (56) than any man in history. He loves the clay that Kriek ended up kissing.
Kriek hates it. He played here once before, in 1979, losing to Pavel Hutka of Czechoslovakia in the first round. For the next six years, Kriek used the French Open as a time to hone his water skiing at home in Naples, Fla.
"It was fun staying away from here," he said. "But I think this year it's been more fun coming back."
He came back largely because his wife, Tish, had never been to Paris. "I told her we'd come over, she could do a little shopping and I'd play a couple of matches," Kriek said. "I never imagined any of this."
In fact, when Kriek drew a South American clay court specialist, Carlos Kirmayr, in the first round, he figured he would probably be spending a lot of time following Tish down the Champs Elysees. Instead, he beat Kirmayr in three sets.
"At least now I can say I won a match in the French Open," said Kriek, 28 and a native of South Africa who became a U.S. citizen four years ago. He proceeded to win two more matches, including a bitter five-set duel at dusk against another clay specialist, Luiz Mattar. That set up a fourth-round match with fourth-seeded Yannick Noah and Kriek advanced after Noah withdrew from the tournament with an Achilles' tendon injury.
"At least now I can say I played on center court at Roland Garros," Kriek said.
Kriek, who has often been one of the tour's bad boys, was as loose as anyone could ever remember seeing him. He laughed when he learned that at No. 13, he was the highest-seeded American in the draw.
"Don't tell me that," he said. "You'll put pressure on me."
In the meantime, his wife's shopping was becoming the talk of the tournament. In truth, Tish Kriek has done little shopping because she has been watching her husband play. Today, he finally made it to center court.
When Kriek walked on to the court, he knew he would have to play the kind of risky tennis that Vilas talked about to have any chance.
"I have absolutely no chance playing his game," Kriek said. "He goes out and practices for four hours like that every day. If I try to play like that I'm just going to end up as one giant cramp and I'll be right out of there. I had to play risky tennis. I had to go for things. That's why I felt so much pressure. Every point, I had to go for something."
Vilas roared through the first set and had set point with Kriek serving at 5-6 in the second. Kriek lofted a weak lob. Vilas lined it up and smacked it wide.
"The ball moved on me at the last minute," Vilas said. "It didn't have very much on it and it moved at the last second. I didn't hit a bad shot. It just went out."
Off that hook, Kriek held serve to force a tie breaker. Three quick errors and he was down, 4-1. He came back to 5-4, then missed a forehand to give Vilas another set point at 6-4. He saved both, first with a forehand winner, then with a missed Vilas forehand.
Once at 6-6, Kriek came up with a hard volley to reach set point, then came in again and watched Vilas lob long. It was one set all. "When I got that tie breaker I thought, 'You've got a chance here,' " Kriek said. "Before that, I was in trouble."
He was troubled, but never in trouble, again. Diving for balls, clowning with the crowd, smacking volleys whenever he could, Kriek was never behind again. And, when it mattered in the tie breakers, he came up with the big shots -- the risks -- that made the difference.
His performance here must now make Davis Cup captain Tom Gorman think twice before he chooses a team to play Mexico on clay in July. Suddenly, Kriek is a bona fide candidate. "If I'm asked, great, I would love to play," Kriek said. "I said that last year when Arthur Ashe was captain. I like Tom Gorman, he's a good guy, but he's never once talked Davis Cup with me."
Kriek will worry about that later. For the moment, he wants to savor Paris.
"I can't tell you how good this feels," Kriek said. "I've been feeling for a while as if I may be on my way out. My career has been in reverse. I need to hit the accelerator and go forward again. This tournament has done that. If you had told me a couple weeks ago I'd be in the semifinals of the French Open, I'd have said, 'Yeah, tell me that when I'm back to water skiing next year.' "