When dust settles, Ginepri still standing

Special to The Times

PARIS -- The clay-court scientist Jose Higueras once deemed tennis coaching overrated, which now seems a clear case of flagrant modesty. For in the rebuilding case of American Robby Ginepri, Higueras and co-coach Diego Moyano have begun to resemble some sort of two-headed Bill Parcells, minus the bluster.

It's not just that they have helped steer an American male into the fourth round and the second week of the French Open, a feat that ranks as almost surreal.

It's that before this French Open got going last Sunday, Ginepri had appeared at Roland Garros for only five cameos: playing five first-round matches, losing five first-round matches. He had exhibited not the first clue about the inscrutable red clay, and we know this because he told us so.

Well, on Saturday on the "bullring" Court No. 1, a 25-year-old from Atlanta going by the name Robby Ginepri played with unmistakable clarity and forced France's Florent Serra into a string of apparent French profanities, which in their defense did sound more lyrical than English profanities.

Once Ginepri won, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, he persisted in his own act of modesty by heaping praise upon Higueras and Moyano.

"Talking with both of them has really opened up another door with me on the clay court," Ginepri said. "Before, I really had no clue how to construct points or what type of shots to hit when I was in trouble or how to serve, or what sets up what. So with them, having a lot of experience and just with me listening constantly, it's just started being engraved in my mind."

These two former players have demystified the bloody clay, this Palm Springs-based tutor (Higueras) who recently started coaching Roger Federer and this Buenos Aires-based tutor (Moyano) who once advised Guillermo Coria. Not only have they helped yield the first fourth-round American male since Andre Agassi in 2003, but Ginepri thinks his clay prowess will boost his grass prowess and his hard-court prowess.

"The more I play on the clay, I think, the better my all-around game is going to get, and the smarter I am going to get on the court," Ginepri said.

It's quite something, given this is a guy who was ranked No. 134 on New Year's Day.

Long known for his willingness to improve, Ginepri played Agassi to a five-set ruckus in the 2005 U.S. Open semifinals to mark the apex of his career. But at the 2006 Australian Open, leading two sets to love over Denis Gremelmayr of Germany, he took a haunting second-round loss and has been semi-anonymous in the Grand Slams since. Until now.

Having hired Higueras in August 2007 and added Moyano about 20 days ago, he had plodded along this year until landing in Paris ranked No. 88 and un-mobbed by paparazzi. Nobody knew he had How To Play Red Clay freshly engraved in his head.

"He can play in clay, in grass, in hard court," said Moyano, and as such, the two coaches have instructed Ginepri in a way some might consider counterintuitive. Rather than having him adjust his game to the clay, they've drilled in the idea that he needn't adjust it all that much or, as Moyano said, "The main thing is he can play his game in grass or in clay but still can play like Robby Ginepri. He cannot play like a Spanish player or another player," but he can "be him, play like he likes to play."

Maybe sometimes, said Moyano, who reached No. 105 in the world before retiring in 2005, American players get to clay and get "uptight."

Then, Moyano added, "He should respect a few things, a few clay-court things," and supplied two examples. American men tend to stand on the baseline and play with their hands, he said, when on clay they ought to emphasize movement more than on hard courts and play with their feet. If stuck far behind the baseline, they should play a high ball, not a flat ball.

With that and other nuances, Moyano wasn't completely joking when he assured Ginepri he should reach at least a quarterfinal here, an unlikelihood that will occur if Ginepri beats 25th-ranked Fernando Gonzalez of Chile on Monday.

Then, in the larger context, the whole thing calls into question whether Higueras might figure out anything to help Federer against Rafael Nadal, much as he helped coax French titles out of Michael Chang and Jim Courier while branding coaching overrated.

Ginepri learned in April that Higueras would take Federer as a client.

"I was in Jose's office at Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs when he let me know," Ginepri said. "I was actually excited that he could actually get an opportunity like that to work with Roger. You know, he pointed out if I wasn't OK with it, there's no way he was going to take this job. He told me I was going to be his No. 1 priority, and if I had any problems through the whole time he was going to stop and not do it."

Besides, Ginepri said, "Jose's always worked with at least two players." And while Ginepri joked that it's "not too hard to top what I've done here before," it's plenty hard to top it three times.

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