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Joel Drucker: Tennis' MIA

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, we examined tennis’ communal aspects. Today, two notable examples of players who’ve exiled themselves from main street.

At the 1997 US Open, Romanian Irina Spirlea was right in the thick of the plot. Spirlea’s powerful forehand and sleek one-handed backhand had earned her wins over two top tenners of sharply contrasting styles - a 76, 64 win over counterpuncher supreme Amanda Coetzer, followed by a sparkling 67, 76, 63 quarterfinal victory versus second-seeded Monica Seles. Surely that match with Seles would be remembered as the match of the tournament.

Not quite. In the semis, Spirlea faced Venus Williams. It was Williams’ US Open debut. Spirlea won the first set in a tiebreaker. But then, in the second set, she made a point of literally bumping into Williams on a changeover. The match went into a third set tiebreaker, and though Spirlea held two match points, Williams won the match.

“She thinks she’s the f____ing Venus Williams,” Spirlea said after the match. Venus’ father, Richard, called Spirlea a “big white turkey.”

Spirlea’s experiences with the Williams sisters would continue in 1998 - a loss to Serena in the first round of the Australian, avenged in third round of the US Open. Ranked eighth in the world in ’97, Spirlea would finish ’98 ranked 15.

But starting in May 2000 at Hamburg, Spirlea would commence a five-match losing streak. Her last recorded match: a first round defeat at Wimbledon to Silvija Talajo. She was 26. Since then, nada. Rarely has an elite player so vanished from the tennis scene.

Close enough to Spirlea comes Guillermo Coria. Like Spirlea, Coria was a player graced with superb craftsmanship, particularly on clay. Named after his fellow Argentine, Hall of Famer Guillermo Vilas, Coria’s deft groundstrokes and superb touch had earned him the nickname “El Mago” - The Magician. In 2003, he earned five singles titles and beat Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. A year later, Coria was one of the favorites to take the French Open, dropping just one set on his way to the finals. As that final began, Coria had wracked up a 48-2 record on the dirt. And when he took only one hour to win the first two sets 60, 63 against his compatriot, Gaston Gaudio, all seemed inevitable that Coria would join his hero, Vilas, and raise the prestigious Coupe des Mousquetaires.

But then came a plot twist. Late in the third set, the fans engaged in the popular wave. Gaudio relaxed. Coria tightened - so much that by the fourth set, he began to cramp. It went into a fifth, and though Coria held two championship points, Gaudio emerged the victory - leaving Coria in tears.

Like Spirlea, Coria too appeared haunted by those two lost match points. A little more than two years after that day in Paris, hindered by tremendous yips on his serve, Coria fell out of the top 100. By the summer of 2007, all of age 25, Coria was out of the top 1000. Since then, it’s been reported that he’s coached his younger brother and become a traveling ambassador for an Argentine government-funded tennis initiative. Where had the magic gone?

Spirlea and Coria - poof.

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