At his lowest point in Sunday's French Open final, Gaston Gaudio screamed to his coach in Spanish that he wanted to leave. He was playing so poorly, having lost 11 of the first 12 games to fellow Argentine Guillermo Coria, the world's best clay-court player, that he rued ever getting to the championship. It would have been better, Gaudio thought, to have lost in the first round than to suffer public humiliation of this magnitude.
A few hours and a wild turn of events later, Gaudio's face was contorted in tears as he stood on a podium at Roland Garros's center court and accepted the champion's cup from his childhood idol and mentor, Guillermo Vilas, the last Argentine man to win a Grand Slam tournament (1979 Australian Open).
"It's like I touch heaven," Gaudio explained after shaking off his somnambulistic state early in the match to vanquish the favored Coria, whose once-brilliant game was seized by cramps and anxiety, 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6.
If Gaudio's day covered the range of human emotion, so did that of Coria, Vilas and the capacity crowd of 15,109, who jammed the stands at Philippe-Chatrier court to watch the first all-Argentine final in Grand Slam history. They were subjected not only to extremes of tennis, from sublime strokes to outright chokes, but also to great theater, with Gaudio flinging his racket into the cerulean Paris sky after the victory and the dejected Coria bashing his racket into the court, then breaking down in tears during his post-match interview.
Along the way there was Coria's breathtaking athletic skills; Gaudio's despair; a fan-inspired comeback; and questions of gamesmanship, as Coria hobbled through the fourth set and bounced back for a 69-minute fifth set that saw Gaudio fend off two match points.
When it was over, Gaudio, unseeded in the tournament and unheralded in his own country, trotted slowly around the perimeter of the court to high-five every fan he could for having cheered him on and made him laugh at his darkest moment by erupting in the wave.
"Until that moment, I couldn't play," Gaudio, 25, said. "I was too nervous. Suddenly the crowd did the wave, and I enjoyed my tennis more. I enjoyed the match, and I came back."
It was a dream come true for Gaudio and a dream bitterly denied for the third-seeded Coria.
The baby-faced 22-year-old had pinned so many hopes on winning this French Open. It would have been his first major title. It would have represented affirmation of his greatness on clay. And it would have meant revenge against those he claimed gave him the contaminated vitamin supplements that cost him a seven-month suspension from the game in 2001-02.
"After what happened to me because of doping, I was dreaming of this situation," Coria said through a translator as tears streamed down his face. "I came here thinking that it was the opportunity to demonstrate to everybody, and more specifically to the people who judged me, to show them what I was able to do to and keep them quiet. . . . I was not able to do so."
The 5-foot-9, 145-pound Coria, dubbed "the little magician" for his quick-as-lightning moves on court, was a prohibitive favorite, boasting a 37-1 record on clay since his semifinal defeat in the 2003 French Open. But the first two sets were more lopsided than anyone envisioned. Coria rolled through the first set in 24 minutes and led 5-1 when Gaudio screamed that he wanted to leave.
"He was completely lost," said Vilas, who was riveted in his courtside seat. "The inward tournament that he was playing was, I think, bigger than the four Grand Slams put together."
Gaudio managed to tame his nerves and bring his wooden legs to life in the third set. With Gaudio trailing 3-4, fans burst into the wave and refused to silence themselves despite the chair umpire's pleas. Gaudio applauded them, and the fans applauded back.
"He was playing so bad that people started thinking, 'I'm going to cheer him on,' " Vilas said. "It helped him. It was so fast in the beginning that the people were even embarrassed."
Gaudio held serve at love to knot the score at four games each. In the next game he ran down a masterful drop shot and answered with one of his own. It was a crucial point for two reasons: Gaudio went on to claim the set; and Coria apparently strained a muscle running down the drop shot, setting off the bizarre chain of events that followed.
At 1-1 in the fourth set, Coria abruptly called for the trainer and pointed to his left leg. The trainer applied a balm to his calves and told him he would feel better in 15 minutes. Coria returned to the game but barely competed. He didn't run, stood flat-footed and punched his serve over the net as if he were playing badminton.
Gaudio was mystified. Was it gamesmanship? The two had scuffled after Coria appeared to feign injury during a match the previous year. Was it a serious injury? NBC commentators John McEnroe and Mary Carillo weren't sure, either. The crowd fell silent, and any momentum Gaudio had evaporated.
Coria didn't appear to be in pain and calmly gobbled bananas and liquids at each break. But after Gaudio won the fourth set 6-1, Coria trotted out for the fifth set bouncing like a boxer.
"What next?" a bewildered McEnroe said on-air.
The lead rocked back and forth, with neither player able to hold serve.
Serving at 6-5, Coria twice had match point but sent groundstrokes wide each time. Gaudio wasn't as careless with his break points at 7-6. He ripped a one-handed backhand winner and sent his racket flying.
"It means everything. Everything," Gaudio said. "It's like a dream."