Gaston Gaudio - The last French Open winner before the dominance of Rafael Nadal

Gaston Gaudio of Argentina was the last winner of the French Open in 2004 before the domination of tennis and the tournament began of Rafael Nadal and the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Gaston Gaudio became the first Argentinian Tennis player in 25 years to win the French Open in 2004. (Image credit: Twitter)

The dominance of the ‘big three’ in Tennis is so absolute that fans struggle to remember the time before their arrival. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic’s dominance of the sport for the last decade-and-a-half has been so thorough that there might be a different classification of eras. In Tennis, there was the Open Era and the Amateur Era. Now, in the men’s game, there might be pre-big three and post-big three.

One trivia question. Who was the last player outside of the Big Three to win the French Open in the last 15 years? You may argue that it was Stanislas Wawrinka in 2015. But, before that? Who was the last person outside of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to have won the French Open? The answer will take a lot of searching. In the end, the answer is Argentina’s Gaston Gaudio. In 2004, much before the arrival of Nadal, Gaston Gaudio had continued the tradition of the French Open producing unlikely winners.

It was an all-Argentina final, the only instance in the Open Era in the French Open. It was extreme. Gaudio, at the end of five sets, managed to achieve the ultimate zenith in his career.

The career of Gaston Gaudio

Gaudio was born in Temperley suburb of Buenos Aires. Initially, he had excelled in football and rugby. But, he had to choose tennis for a living. The reason? His family business was running into some problems. Tennis was looked upon as a good means to earn decent money at that time and Gaudio made the plunge.

After some steady performances in the first couple of years in the ATP circuit, Gaudio made a name for himself in the Monte Carlo Masters. Gaston Gaudio defeated Marat Safin, Felix Mantilla, Julien Boutter, and Juan Carlos Ferrero without dropping a set. However, he lost to Slovakia’s Dominik Hrbaty in a tough three-set match, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. Gaudio made the final in Stuttgart, again playing against fellow-Argentine Franco Squillari but he lost the final, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 2-6.

This despite having beaten his opponent soundly in the Gstaad quarterfinals and in the Braunschweig finals earlier in the year (both on clay) and leading Squillari 2 sets to 1 in Stuttgart. Gaudio also represented Argentina in his first Olympic Games, losing to Vladimir Voltchkov of Belarus, 6-7, 6-4, 1-6, in the first round. He finished the year ranked No. 34.

Great start for Gaudio in 2002 and 2003

Gaudio won the first tournament of his career in Barcelona without dropping a set. Gaudio defeated world No. 1 and US Open champion Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals, and then dismissed Spaniard and French Open winner of the same year Albert Costa, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2, in the final. Gaudio followed up his maiden title with another in Mallorca a week later.

Gaudio made the fourth round of the French Open, losing to Juan Carlos Ferrero, 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 2-6, 4-6, while leading 4-1 in the final set. After Roland Garros, Gaudio made the final in Gstaad and the semifinals in Kitzbuhel, losing on both occasions to Alex Corretja. 

In the Davis Cup semifinals against Russia, Gaudio was leading 5-1 in the fifth set against Yevgeny Kafelnikov and had a match point, which was overruled by umpire Jorge Dias in Kafelnikov’s favour, who then went on to take the set 8-6 and the match. He finished the year ranked No. 21.

The glory of the French Open

Gaudio came into the French Open ranked 44th and was unseeded for the tournament. In the first round, he upset top-10 player and compatriot Guillermo Canas over two days in five sets. Then he won another five-set match against Jiri Novak. Gaudio dropped only one more set en route to the final, as he defeated Thomas Enqvist, Igor Andreev and Lleyton Hewitt.

His victory over fellow compatriot David Nalbandian made him a serious title contender. However, he was facing Guillermo Coria in the final. At that time, Coria had a great run in the clay court season at that time and was ranked No.3. The match did not start well at all for Gaudio. He lost the first set 0-6 and the second 3-6. It seemed that the final would be lop-sided.

Unknown to many fans at that time, Gaudio was facing some issues outside the court. His father was ill and was on life support. However, he overcame that and survived. Gaudio seized upon that moment of inspiration and made a dramatic comeback. He won the next two sets 6-4,6-1 to take the final to a decider. In an epic final set that saw plenty of ebbs and flows, Gaudio defeated Coria 8-6 to register a famous win.

Gaudio became the fifth-lowest-ranked player to win a Grand Slam. The Argentinian became the first man in the open era to win a Grand Slam having saved match points in the final. Gaudio reached the top 10 in the ATP Entry rankings for the first time. He finished the year ranked world No. 10. It was also a golden age in tennis for Argentina as an unprecedented 3 Argentine players finished in top 10 (Guillermo Coria finished No. 7, David Nalbandian finished No. 9).

Gaudio fades away

After his monumental French Open title triumph, Gaudio failed to reach those highs again. His form tapered away. Despite some sporadic performances, Gaudio never managed to get his consistency back. He decided to take a break from Tennis. In that period, Gaudio was actually receiving treatment for clinical depression.

With the emergence of the big three, it was hard for other players to stand up and get noticed. In 2011, Gaudio announced his retirement from competitive tennis. With Nadal winning 13 French Open titles from 2005 to 2020, every winner prior to 2005 might well be forgotten. But, Gaudio was one of the last ‘unlikely’ winners of the French Open at a time when men’s Tennis was far more open and unpredictable.

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