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His frame small, his game tall

Little Guillermo Coria is frustrating opponents on his way up the rankings.

KEITH NIEBUHR
Published May 23, 2004

Andy Roddick blasts away.

A blistering serve reaches 135 mph.

A vicious forehand hits the line.

A slice curls, skips and slides.

But each shot is returned, with pace and precision. And one can sense that Roddick is getting a tad frustrated. He doesn't like long points. Most big hitters don't.

Roddick ultimately takes the match - the final at this year's Nasdaq-100 Open - when his opponent retires with a back injury, but not before being pushed in every set, every game, every point, every shot and, of course, in the mind.

"He was almost like a human backboard out there," Roddick said. "After a while you start thinking about it when he makes that many balls."

Guillermo Coria was the man across the net. What he did that afternoon was typical.

He is the gnat that won't leave you alone on a muggy summer afternoon. The annoying ring on the co-worker's cell phone that never stops. The repeated call from the telemarketer.

"I'm going to fight hard every point," Coria said.

Many expect Coria to contend at the French Open, where he reached the semifinals last year. A title would be one for the little guy. The 22-year-old Argentinean is listed at 5 feet 9, 145 pounds, and for the record, that makes him smaller than both Serena and Venus Williams. In a sport in which the bigger and stronger have emerged in recent years - see Roddick and Roger Federer - and the ball is being crushed like never before, he has thrived with what hardly would be called a power game.

"He is certainly a David among Goliaths," two-time French Open champion Jim Courier said.

How can a player so small be so effective? How can he trap the world's best into playing his game? And how has a player ranked 45th at the start of 2003 moved up to No. 3, ahead of guys like Andre Agassi, Tim Henman and Mark Philippoussis?

"One of the great things he does, and every great player has this ability, is that he has extremely good timing in terms of hand-eye coordination," said ESPN commentator MaliVai Washington, a former tour player. "A couple of other smaller guys, Michael Chang and Marcelo Rios, had it. What it allows him to do is handle the pace. It doesn't matter who he's playing. For a guy as small as he is he has the ability to step up close to the baseline."

Foot speed is another plus. Coria races around the court like few can.

"That's his greatest asset," Courier said.

Many have compared Coria's quickness with that of Chang. Some go further.

"It was amazing how Bjorn Borg could cover the ground," ESPN/CBS commentator Dick Enberg said. "Coria has got that kind of quickness and speed as well. He's a terrific young player."

Also crucial to Coria's success, insiders say, is his on-court intelligence. He is a confident, optimistic player who seems unafraid of any challenge and unfazed by any situation.

"He has to be (smarter than his opponents)," Washington said. "He's 5-9. He's always been one of the smallest guys on the court probably since the day he picked up a tennis racket. But he's a difficult player to play. Against him, it's a real mental challenge. You can't just say this is the style of game I'm playing."

Coordinated, fast, intelligent. This combination has allowed Coria to become one of the ATP Tour's top players. He is 28-6 this year, 16-1 on clay, and before falling to Federer in the recent championship of the Masters Series Hamburg in Germany, had won 31 straight on clay, a surface that fits his style better than any other.

"He's very clever," Courier said. "He's very crafty. He's very consistent. He plays chess out there."

Coria's ability to reach and return most of his opponents' shots can cause some to press. Want to beat this guy? Better be prepared for some rallies. Coria tests one's patience from beginning to end.

"He makes his opponents try to hit pinpoint shots a little too much," Washington said. "They know if they don't, he's going to be able to run it down. So they go a little closer to the lines and that produces errors."

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