Coria path to glory relies on clay king winning mind game

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TENNIS players are anoraks at heart. They will discuss the minutiae of string tensions, forehand grips and service action stances to a band playing, and they think that it is all important. But when it comes to the crunch, they all know that what matters most is the grey matter between their ears. It is just admitting it that seems to be a problem.

It has taken one Timothy Henry Henman 29 years to realise that doing what comes naturally will win him matches. He is a serve and volleyer so, perhaps, serving and volleying might be the way to go. This revelation got him to the semi-finals, but no further, at Roland Garros. Then again, clay is not his surface and the battalions of Argentine baseline craftsmen are always out to get him here. But come Wimbledon, not even he knows what could happen.

Henman’s loss cleared the way for Guillermo Coria to take his appointed place in today’s final where he will face Gaston Gaudio in an Argentine derby - the boy from Venado Tuerto against the man from Buenos Aires. And for both of them, their chances will depend not on the quality of their shot- making but the clarity of their thinking.

Coria has only lost one match on clay in the past 12 months. Since he lost here in the semi-finals last year, he has collected titles on the red dirt by the bucketful, and has only been shown up by Roger Federer, the world No.1, in the final of the Hamburg Masters three weeks ago. He is the best clay court player in the world, without a doubt, but it is the doubts that may scupper him.

Against Henman on Friday, he was expected to sweep the ‘Rosbif’ aside, allowing him no more than a handful of games. When it came to it, he was tight to point of terror for the first set and only when Henman crumbled in the middle of the match did he get into his stride. But with the end in sight, he panicked again and gave Henman another chance in the fourth set.

But Coria has come here on a mission and the responsibility is a weighty burden to carry.

"My goal has not been to win matches here but to lift the trophy on Sunday," he said. "We Argentines are fighters and now even more so because of the situation in our country, especially with economy. It is really difficult for people in Argentina. We won’t give up and we know that for the whole country, what we are doing here is really important."

Gaudio can spot pressure coming a mile off. Throughout his career, he has known that he has the talent to win titles - he is a more complete and gifted player than Coria - but he never had the courage to do it. Opening up match-winning leads time and again, he would freeze and be hauled back to defeat. At the age of 25 he had had enough and, as he traipsed around the South American clay court circuit at the start of the year, winning no more than the occasional round, he was ready to quit for good.

His friends persuaded him to think again and pushed him in the direction of Pablo Pecora, a sports psychologist, who gave him a new lease of life. As he took on David Nalbandian in the semi-finals on Friday, he took a one-set lead, dug in for a scrap at 5-1 down in the second and then, with the second set tiebreak under his belt, held firm to win the third 6-0. Not much sign of choking there.

Not that he has closed down his emotional side. As soon as the match was over, he burst into tears. He mopped himself up and then burst into tears again. From nowhere he had now put himself in position to achieve his lifetime’s ambition.

"Just so many things were going through my mind," he said. "So many memories, so much that people might not know about, that I have been doing since I was a little child, so many sacrifices."

He also knows that what happens today is the real test and that is has absolutely nothing to do with his first serve percentages.

"I have to play unbelievable," he said, assessing chances against a man he has only beaten once in four attempts. "I have to play my best tennis and I have to be sure that I can do it. I have to convince myself that I’m allowed to do it and that I can do it. And that’s it."

It sounds blissfully simple but it is anything but. Very few players allow themselves the luxury of winning and most are tormented by the prospect of losing. For both Coria and Gaudio, this is the match of their lives and neither man knows what to expect. But for Gaudio, he has at least put the whole experience in perspective before a ball has been struck. "You’ve got to try and do your best," he said. "If it happens, great. If not, what can I do?"

And that might just be enough to make the difference.