Notoriously brash but hardly stupid, John McEnroe vowed to stand on his head if British serve-and-volleyer Tim Henman upended Argentina's Guillermo Coria, the world's best clay-court player, to advance to the final of the French Open.
For the first hour of their semifinal Friday, it seemed as if McEnroe was destined to swallow his prodigious pride and place his balding pate on the Roland Garros red clay. But after rolling through the first set and a half, Henman saw his razor-sharp game lose its edge: Strategically placed serves began straying from their targets, and forehands that once tagged the baseline began missing by inches.
In the brief spell Henman needed to collect himself, Coria ripped off 13 consecutive games and cruised to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, 7-5 victory that ensured the first all-Argentine final in a Grand Slam championship.
Coria's opponent in Sunday's final is as much of a shock as Henman's valiant stand on the alien red clay: unseeded Gaston Gaudio, who continued his streak of sterling play in ousting eighth-seeded David Nalbandian, a countryman regarded as having a superior game and superior station in life, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-0. Gaudio thrust both fists to the sky upon his Herculean achievement, then buried his face in his hands and broke down in sobs.
Sunday's pairing guarantees an Argentine man will win the French Open for just the second time in history. Gazing down with pride from the Roland Garros stands was the legendary Argentine left-hander and poet, Guillermo Vilas, who not only won the 1977 French Open but also inspired Coria's parents to name their son "Guillermo" and encouraged the pre-teen Gaudio's interest in the game.
In Buenos Aires, residents spilled into the streets to celebrate the semifinal victories. At Roland Garros, Argentine tennis fans congregated outside the window of the post-match interview room just to glimpse their heroes.
"I hope that the best player wins on Sunday," Coria said through an interpreter. "But Argentina is going to be celebrated throughout the world for a few days because we've done something wonderful."
Coria, who is called "El Mago" (the magician) by legions of admirers back home, now has won 37 of his last 38 matches on clay, defeated only by current world No. 1 Roger Federer. But he hardly looked like a champion in the early stages against Henman, who countered conventional wisdom on clay by following his serves to the net at every opportunity.
Coria was rattled by the up-tempo pace of Henman's grass-court game and struggled with his service return and passing shots.
Henman's approach was a study in being true to oneself. As he explained:
"I believe that I'm the best volleyer in the world. Add to that the fact I think I'm the best athlete at the net. So if I believe that, why do I play -- or why did I play -- so much tennis from the baseline because I'm not the best baseline player? . . . It's about playing to your strengths and committing to it."
Henman's serve-and-volley strategy carried him further than ever in the 2004 French Open, and fans in England responded with a premature case of what's known as "Henmania," the frenzy over Henman that traditionally erupts during Wimbledon. Even soccer star David Beckham sent best wishes, calling Henman's march through the draw "a massive bonus for the country."
Coria refused to concede, however, after losing the first set. He changed to a more loosely strung racket, he changed into a pair of lucky shoes, he abandoned his drop shot, and he vowed to keep Henman pinned deep.
Henman couldn't sustain his once-precise shotmaking but regained his form to stage a stirring fourth-set comeback after losing 13 games in a row. The crowd, eager for a fifth set, roared to life, urging on Henman.
Coria forced the tiebreaker and closed it out, 7-5, for the match.
Henman bowed out as the only man to take a set from Coria in the tournament. "Playing the best clay-court player in the world, I make him look pretty ordinary," Henman said with pride. "But the bottom line was, I wasn't good enough to do it for the amount of time that was necessary."
In the day's earlier match, the unseeded Gaudio snatched the opening set before Nalbandian knew what happened. Gaudio was almost letter-perfect, committing just three unforced errors in the set to Nalbandian's 13.
The favored Nalbandian roared back to build a 5-1 lead in the second set, but his resolve deserted him as quickly as it had appeared. Gaudio evened the score at five games apiece, then forced a tiebreaker that he won on his fourth set point. From there, he cruised to the victory, winning 12 of the last 13 games.
Having dreamed of such a moment for so many years, he broke down and wept. "So many things, so many memories, so much that people might not know about, but thing that I've been doing since I'm a little child," said Gaudio, 25, his voice trailing off. "So many sacrifices. Then suddenly to win a match . . . "
French Open Note: Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, an avid tennis fan and player, telephoned Elena Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina on Thursday night with congratulations on their semifinal victories. According to Dementieva, Yeltsin plans to fly to Paris to attend their championship match Saturday, which will mark the first time two Russians have met in a Grand Slam final.