PARIS: A topsy-turvy men’s tournament at this year’s French Open could finish up with the proverbial biter being bitten in today’s final.
Third seed Juan Carlos Ferrero goes into the trophy match as the last man standing among the huge Spanish claycourt armada.
But the wiry 23-year-old from Onteniente, nicknamed the Mosquito, now has to draw the sting from a 24-year-old Dutchman who has the serve – and shots – to blast him off the Philippe Chatrier centre court.
Pre-tournament logic would have dictated a no contest between Ferrero and Martin Verkerk.
The same logic however would have dictated that Verkerk, ranked 46 in the world and without a single Grand Slam match win to his name in seven years on the professional circuit, would not have made it all the way to the last day.
Yet Verkerk, from Leiderdorp between Amsterdam and The Hague, has not fluked his way to the final taking some notable scalps along the way.
His victims include Spanish 1998 champion Carlos Moya, as well as German 11th seed Rainer Schuettler. He then booked his passage by swatting Argentine seventh seed Guillermo Coria 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) in a 2hr 40min semi-final, firing down 19 aces and 62 winners.
If Verkerk describes his run as “a joke” it’s a joke which will have fallen flat on those he has left by the wayside.
Ferrero may have come here as the Monte Carlo Masters champion and he can boast an astonishing claycourt win-loss record for the season of 27-2.
But he is not about to underestimate his rival, whom he beat on Austrian clay in the round of 16 at Kitzbuhel in straight sets in their only previous meeting.
“I watched a little bit of Verkerk’s match (with Coria). He has a lot of confidence right now. He beat very great tennis players here.
“I think that clay is not really his surface – but he’s playing unbelievably. I will see on the court how I will return his serve,” said Ferrero, who was not fully fit when he bowed to Costa 12 months ago.
“I’m happy to be in the final again. Everything is fine right now – my arm is 100 percent.”
Verkerk, whose exploits here have lifted him into the top 20 in the ATP Champions Race – a win today will vault him into the top 10 – is making up for lost time after preferring nocturnal amusements to sweat and toil on the training court until only recently.
“I was struggling and I wanted to quit,” said Verkerk of his early days on the Tour.
“I was mentally not good.”
Fame came late to the 1.91m star – but he is now ready for it.
“With this result I changed my tennis results around from a nobody to someone who became a somebody.
Verkerk is the first ever Dutchman to make the final here and he was overcome with emotion after seeing off Coria.
“It’s a miracle – I was like (ranked) 180 a year ago, now I’m heading for the top 20.
“I love the game. It would have been really tough to give it up but if you’re not improving...
“I didn’t have the mental strength – but at the moment I really want it,” said Verkerk, who landed his first title in Milan last February and who here has more than doubled his previous career earnings of US$300,000.
“The money is not important to me. I can’t explain this. This is a dream – it’s actually a little bit of a joke. I don’t know any more what happened to me. The main thing is I really worked very hard – they say if you work hard it comes one day.
“I can beat Moya, I can beat Coria – so why can I not beat Costa or Ferrero? But it will be really, really tough.”
Ferrero’s attributes when he came here were the hunger to atone for last year’s win – coupled with strength in numbers with a sizeable Spanish presence at his back.
Now the title appears his to lose – as Verkerk bids to join 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek as a Dutch Grand Slam champion.
“I don’t feel pressure,” Verkerk insisted as he headed off to prepare for the biggest match of his life.
The burden of expectation lies firmly on the shoulders of his opponent. – AFP