You know you are in the off-season of tennis when odd ideas start seeping into the brain. Maybe it’s just my own withdrawal symptoms kicking in, but lately I have found myself thinking of Guillermo Coria, of all people. In fact this column could easily be called, “Whatever Happened To….”

Coria has suffered through one of the more disastrous free-falls in recent tennis memory this year, spurred in large part by a shoulder injury that seems reluctant to heal. In particular this has affected his serving motion, leading to what people term “The Yips.”

This is a player I was not especially fond of, for starters. I have to admit that upfront. He had too much of that testy little guy mentality for my tastes, right up there with that other pit bull on the tour, Lleyton Hewitt. In fact you could call Coria kind of a Hewitt Junior. No surprise they played one of the more contentious Davis Cup matches in recent time when they duked it out in 2005’s series before Hewitt prevailed in four sets.

So why is it I find myself vaguely missing the little creep? With that wiry, ultra mobile body of his, and that small ferret face with those high cheekbones, Coria seems like an alien from another planet. He should have hooked up with Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, one of the women’s new good young players on tour, whose exotic features have led some to call her the Alien. Think of the offspring these two could crank out. I find them rather beautiful in their oddity. But Coria is married to Carla, a stunning brunette from Croatia, who has been a rock of security for him in this downward spiral in his career.

Mind you, the Argentines have generally seemed to me like they are from another planet. There is alienation even among themselves. Nalbandian is referred to as the Armenian, and with his blond hair and blue eyes he certainly looks an anomaly among his countrymen. Gaudio is more their mainstream guy, he is good-looking and popular and more “one of us.” But lately his career has been all over the place too. At least Gaudio and Nalbandian have not been caught with their hands in the cookie jar of illegal substances. That’s the other thing about the Argentines, they appear blithely indifferent to the things they put into their systems. Canas and Puerta are coming back on tour in the new year after serving out their drug suspensions apparently none the worse for wear.

The 24-year-old Coria, nicknamed “Guille” (pronounced gee-jay), had a suspension too a few years back, but right now his main problems are keeping his shoulder healthy and hoping his mentality doesn’t sink too low in terms of confidence. He’s had several operations on the shoulder, and may have tried coming back too early.

We could view his career as a cautionary tale of how a player can become obsolete in a very short period of time in today’s power game. You cannot simply endure out there on court, you need a few weapons to fight back with. I’m scratching my head to describe a weapon Coria has; there really aren’t any. Yet he made it to Number 3 in the world in 2004 with 7 titles on clay, his best surface, and 9 wins overall.

He’s not just a clay courter, though, as evidenced by this interesting statistic. In 2004 Coria was one of only three players, besides Roger Federer and Andy Roddick to win titles on all three surfaces. And in ’05 he was one of a bare handful (Federer and Nalbandian) who made it at least to the Round of 16 in all four Slams.

His game relies on speed, movement and compact strokes, and, in particular, mental tenacity. He seemed to float effortlessly about the court, retrieving everything in sight, and his technique always appeared pretty good. But as the game kept getting bigger, and as someone as fierce on clay as Nadal came along, Coria realized he had to up the ante. His strokes needed more pop, he tried to play above and beyond what his body perhaps was ready to take on. An injury was probably ready to happen.

It turned out to be the shoulder, spreading down to tendinitis in the elbow. His results started to head south in 2004, highlighted especially at Roland Garros, where he was up two sets on countryman Gaudio in the final when cramps set in, Gaudio got a second wind, and Coria ended up the one left in the dust. It was a meltdown of nuclear proportions, and I would be very surprised if Coria managed to put it entirely behind him.

Coria began 2006 ranked #8 in the world; now he’s down to #116. He could manage to put together three wins in a row only once this year. Here is a sampling of how it went: He beat Youzhny in straight sets in the opening round of Monte Carlo, then came back from 6-1, 5-1 down to beat Mathieu in the next round. Then he beat another tricky player, Nicholas Kiefer, in a three-set war of who could double-fault the least. How do you say “rollercoaster ride” in Spanish?

Never one to take a loss lying down, Kiefer bad-mouthed Coria in the post match press conference, saying he “never saw a player making so many double faults except Kournikova in the women’s game.” I think he really meant to say Dementieva but we’ll let that pass for now. Never one to let an insult go unpunished, Coria retorted with, “But I won the match, I broke his serve more than he broke mine.”

Not too long ago we were so afraid of tennis being dominated by power servers that we may forget what awaits on the opposite end of the spectrum, namely a match where the least double faults wins it. Just for laughs I went to Coria’s stats. He had 287 double faults this year. I nearly fainted. That’s spread over only 25 matches played all year. That’s about 11.4 something double faults per match. Major Yips.

Coria’s high point were those three wins in Monte Carlo, but then he got blasted 2 and 1 by Mr. Nadal on his way to victory. Coria then went out in the first rounds of Munich, Rome and Hamburg this year, losing to Gremelmayer on clay in Munich. Seventeen double faults attended that match, followed by 23 more in Monte Carlo.

“What goes through your mind when you’re serving?” inquired a reporter at one of Coria’s press conferences. Coria explains it thusly: “What happens to me is that I forget the movement. So what I have to do is remain calm….what is important is to keep concentrating.”

To his credit I have to say Coria still keeps his feisty outlook even in these troublesome times. He doesn’t like speaking English in his press conferences so he mostly talks to the Spanish speakers. He has no hesitation about defending someone like Canas during his drug suspension trouble. “Canas is not a criminal, ” Coria said in an interview, “He didn’t kill anyone. I know him very well and he would never take anything to give himself an advantage. It was an accident…The ATP and ITF must look at things more on a personal level and less in black and white.” Irascible still, and proud of it we suppose.

As for psychological counseling, Coria shoots that down just as quickly. “I am not working with a psychologist, ” he says. “I tried it for two weeks and I didn’t like it at all.” So much for those snotty mental health professionals. Blowing off Kiefer is one thing; blowing off your therapist is another. I’d never have the nerve in a million years to do that. Maybe this is why I have grown fonder of the little squeak.

Coria is also good at blowing off coaches, too. He’s been through four of them this year. The latest quit just recently, saying Coria wasn’t motivated enough to make a return. A coach I thought would last a bit longer, Jose Higueras, told Coria his basic technique was sound and he needed to keep focusing on his movement. Coria has been one of the top three most sparkling movers on a tennis court so that sounded like good advice. Concentrate on what you do well and try and make that your engine to pull the serve along.

Fellow Argentine Hernan Gumy has entered the coaching fray just recently. Let’s hope he can restore some order to the troubled house of Coria. Coria had a smallish operation recently of undisclosed origin that sidelined him for a week, but he claims he has rested his body for a good six week period and he is working now with both a fitness trainer and a new coach to prepare for ’07.

Mostly it’s up to the brain of Coria to decide if he really wants it enough to dig out of this hole. Some people in chat rooms are wondering if he still feels the passion to compete. Does the beautiful Carla occupy too much of his time? Are there personal problems? Have his success and fame and money gutted his competitive zeal? Have the injuries sapped his confidence? Or has the game simply abandoned him, as newer and bigger players come on tour and the ante gets upped for little guys?

Now we’re at the heart of the matter. What I like about Coria is that there’s still a lot of fight in this little dog, as the folks in Texas like to say. I want to see him get back in the mix. Tennis needs the Wee People. For every Safin, Roddick or Berdych, we need a few more Corias, or the Hewitts, or the Rochus brothers, or someone like Justine Henin-Hardenne on the women’s side. They are figures closer to our reality, they are not bigger than life, they have to work harder for their success. We can relate to that. I can relate to that at least.

Coria is part of the infinite variety that our sport needs to maintain its growth. Let’s hope he finds that gear which can bring him back to his former level.

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