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Sunday, May 30, 2010
Engaged Ginepri playing with an edge

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Robby Ginepri has played himself into the second week of the French Open without fielding a single question about his outfit or manicure.

Instead, after knocking off former champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in five wearing sets Saturday, Ginepri was the subject of another blunt inquiry: How has he made his way to the fourth round of Roland Garros after having won exactly one ATP-level match since the start of the calendar year?

Call him Robby Van Winkle, suddenly awake again after a long slumber. Never one to show extreme emotion, the 27-year-old Ginepri looked mildly elated as reporters pressed him for an explanation after his defeat of No. 18 Ferrero set up a date with two-time French Open semifinalist and world No. 3 Novak Djokovic. "Well, the initials of the tournament are RG," Ginepri said, grinning.

If only it were that simple.

In six of Ginepri's seven previous visits to Paris in the springtime, his sightseeing trip ended in the first round. A then-teenage Djokovic annihilated him here five years ago, 6-0, 6-0, 6-3, and Ginepri has not won a set in any of their three subsequent matches. But his run to the round of 16 in 2008 showed he was capable of sticking around on the red dirt that harkens back to his native Georgia by grafting his straightforward hard-court game onto a strong fitness base. "I can hit the big shots through the court when I need to, and grind if I have to," Ginepri said after beating Italy's Potito Starace in the third round.

Ginepri said he's still benefiting from an extended stint two seasons ago when he worked with clay-court professor Jose Higueras and Argentine coach Diego Moyano. Higueras, who stays in touch with Ginepri, said he expects the encounter with Djokovic to be far more competitive than the last time they met at the French Open.

"It should be a pretty physical match," Higueras said from his European home base in Barcelona. "Robby doesn't get out-hit, and when he has an opportunity, he's quick enough to get inside the court. The important thing will be that he really has to battle and show Novak that win or lose, it's going to be a long day. When you show it's not going to be easy over five sets, sometimes good things happen.

"Robby's a very good mover, he gets pretty good spin on the forehand side, and he gets to the backhand early and has great timing. All he needs to do is have a little bit better shot selection -- and you have to suffer more."

Ginepri is traveling solo this season, and his suffering hasn't always been constructive. Several months ago, frustrated with sporadic, occasionally immobilizing neck pain that made it difficult to serve or even turn his head, he underwent a procedure to have the nerves "burned," or temporarily deadened.

"It's tough when you wake up and you're not sure if you're going to be able to practice, or if it's going to go out midway through practice or even in the match," said Ginepri, who had been bothered by flare-ups on and off for almost two years. "It's a constant worry, and definitely takes a lot of energy out of you when you have to waste your time worrying about something like that."

The discomfort vanished, but his touch on the court didn't return, either. The former world No. 15, who sagged after his U.S. Open semifinal appearance in 2005 but fought his way back into the top 50 in 2008-09, saw his ranking plunge again and is currently No. 98. He's been toiling in lower-level events and qualifying rounds of bigger tournaments, seemingly unable to regain any traction. Ginepri reached the final on the Challenger circuit in Florida in April but lost in the first round in Bordeaux this month after contracting food poisoning.

Looking to log more time on clay, Ginepri played in the World Team Championships in Germany in mid-May and hopped in a van with fellow Americans Sam Querrey and John Isner for the four-and-a-half hour drive to Paris. The two younger men -- one flirting with the top 20, the other already inside -- looked as if they might be poised to reverse the recent trend of U.S. futility and play into the second week of the French Open.

Then Ginepri drew Querrey in the first round. Higueras, who now directs coaching operations for the U.S. Tennis Association, read Ginepri's body language from the stands and got a good message.

"He looked totally engaged," Higueras said. "He has an interesting history, and he'd be the first to tell you this. For some reason, he's had a hard time staying engaged enough to have continuity. He hasn't been able to sustain it. A very high percentage of being a professional tennis player is between the ears."

Ginepri had the mental edge that day, toppling a clearly fatigued and disconsolate Querrey in four sets. He's now the lone American man left in the draw, joining the Williams sisters as the country's only representatives.

Saturday, he looked in control after taking the first two sets against Ferrero 7-5, 6-3, but lost the thread and had to have treatment for a blister as Ferrero evened things out. "I just competed well throughout the whole match," said Ginepri, who responded to a service break in the fifth set by breaking back at love. "I never got down on myself, and always gave myself another opportunity to see another point." His win over Ferrero marked the first time an American had eliminated a Spanish player in five sets since Pete Sampras outlasted Sergi Bruguera in 1996.

"I'm so happy to see him battle and play the tennis he's capable of," Higueras said. "I'm hoping this is the beginning of a second career for him."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.