Sunday, June 8, 2003

Verkerk looks to cap unlikely run

Spain's Ferrero tries to finish job after loss last year

The Associated Press

PARIS - Martin Verkerk has become the talk of the French Open thanks to his speedy serves, quick quips, facial contortions and - most of all - six consecutive wins.

With one more, he'll become among the most unlikely champions in Roland Garros history. The animated, late-blooming Dutchman will play 2002 runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero for the title today.

Verkerk is the first man to reach the final in his French Open debut since Mikael Pernfors in 1986. Coming into the tournament, he had never won a Grand Slam match, and now he could become the fifth unseeded champion - male or female - at Roland Garros.

There's more to Verkerk's remarkable run: He erased three match points in the second round against Luis Horna. No player since Adriano Panatta in 1976 has survived such a close call so early in the tournament and gone on to win the championship.

When Verkerk arrived in Paris, his career earnings in seven years as a professional totaled $431,820.

"A little more now," he said.

A win today would be worth $983,000. Even if he loses, he'll receive $491,000, more than doubling his career earnings.

"The money is not important to me," he said.

What matters to Verkerk is that at the ripe old age of 24, he's rewarding his coach, family and friends for the faith they had in his game. He thought about those things as he laid on the clay crying after he beat Guillermo Coria 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (0) in the semifinals.

"It's not so good for me to talk about, because then I'm going to cry again," he said. "With this result, I change my tennis life around from a nobody to probably somebody who achieved something in tennis."

The 6-foot-5 Verkerk said he was talented but lazy when he was younger. Easily distracted by a good time, he twice considered quitting the sport.

"If you see me one year ago, I had difficulty with volleys, I had difficulty running, I had a weak forehand," he said. "I had, actually, only a backhand and a serve."

Even now, he confesses that he's not keen on running to stay in shape.

"I prefer just to hit the ball and let the other guy run," he said.

But he began to work harder. He admits that his bug-eyed facial expressions on court can be ugly, but his groundstrokes are handsome - and strong enough to neutralize a backcourt wizard such as Ferrero.

Verkerk's 125 mph serve ensures that he'll be a threat at Wimbledon, even though he has never played on grass. But first, there's one match to go on clay against an opponent eager to make a Grand Slam breakthrough.

Ferrero reached the semifinals in 2000 and 2001, then lost in the final last year to Albert Costa. With another defeat, the Spaniard may become labeled a career also-ran.

"One victory makes a lot of difference, you think?" he said. "If I win, you think the people are going to think I'm a better player than if I lose the final? I don't know. Maybe yes, maybe not. But I hope not."

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