BUENOS AIRES -- There is still hope for Latin America. And that is worth a lot. Two Argentines, Juan Ignacio Chela and Juan Monaco, are still alive and kicking, dreaming of a happy ending to the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam tournament of the year.
Is that a realistic dream? They will face different opposition in the round of 16, but they both know this is the moment of truth.
Having five Argentines (Chela, Monaco, David Nalbandian, Agustin Calleri and Juan Martin del Potro) in the third round was a U.S. Open record for the country. Now, Chela and Monaco will try to emulate Nalbandian and Guillermo Coria, who reached the quarterfinals in New York in 2003 and 2005, the best Argentine performance in this tradition-rich tournament.
The Argentine Legion improved on what happened last year in the U.S. Open, when no Latin American played in the second week. The compatriots also bettered what was done at Wimbledon this year. The best individual performance in Grand Slams in 2007 came from Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, who reached the final in Australia before losing to Roger Federer.
Overall, although Latin American players have made significant progress, fast courts still seem complicated for them. On average, only Gonzalez, Nalbandian, Guillermo Cañas and Chela play better on them than on the slow clay courts. In fact, even though no Latin American player was able to shine at Wimbledon, Gonzalez, Nalbandian and Cañas were the only survivors in the third round.
Now, the Argentine survivors will try to at least emulate the performance at Roland Garros, where one South American (Cañas) reached the quarterfinals, with Nalbandian and Monaco eliminated in the round of 16.
Chela living up to expectations
After starting to work under a new coach (Mariano Monachesi), Chela, 28, became one of the most successful and consistent Latin Americans in 2007. "El Flaco" (Spanish for skinny), who is seeded 20th and is No. 22 in the ATP rankings, will move back into the top 20 after this performance and is looking to reach No. 15 again, as he did in 2004. He knows he could even climb further if he keeps playing like this.
Only in the third round, after defeating two local wild cards, did he concede his first set of the tournament, against Ivan Ljubicic, and he ended winning firmly in the fifth. It was a memorable victory for him because, even though Ljubicic is not playing his best tennis, the Croatian had defeated Chela in their six previous meetings.
Chela, who lost in the first round in each of the past three U.S. Opens, finally is living up to expectations. His speed and taste for hard courts have led him again to the U.S. Open round of 16, as in 2002, when he lost to Andy Roddick. And he knows he has the perfect draw this time.
Owner of consistent baseline hits and a powerful service return, the Argentine faces Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, who reached the round of 16 at a Grand Slam for the first time in his career. The European has won the two matches between them, the first one coming in last year's U.S. Open. But Chela will try to repeat his best performance in a Grand Slam: the quarterfinals in Paris 2004.
Monaco keeps the faith
At 23, Monaco is the only Latin American who has won more than one tournament this season -- three, all on clay -- and is directed well by Francisco Mastelli, who came on as his coach in January.
This will be a tournament to remember for him, not only because he had lost in the first round in the past three U.S. Opens but also because this is his best performance in a Grand Slam. He already has gone as far as he did three months ago at the French Open, where he reached the round of 16, and he is going for more, looking to get to the quarterfinals for the first time in his career.
Monaco, who owns a confident forehand and seems to be improving every day, won the first two encounters in four sets and the third one, unexpectedly, in three. The victim was fellow countryman Calleri, who was coming from one of the best wins of his career, against Australian Lleyton Hewitt.
But Monaco won't have an easy journey. Even though he is close to breaking into the top 20 for the first time in his career, he will have a tough matchup against third-seeded Novak Djokovic.
Making a statement
Calleri, after a shocking win over Hewitt, made way too many unforced errors and took too many risks against Monaco. And del Potro, after reaching a Grand Slam third round for the first time in his career, did not threaten Djokovic at all.
Nalbandian's case was different. The 24th seed, and 2005 Masters champion, showed some of the confidence and speed that seemed forgotten. In a poor year, he is trying to recover his best tennis, and he now is being coached by Martin Jaite. Nalbandian did not lose a set before falling against tough Spaniard David Ferrer, whom he had defeated in Canada before the U.S. Open.
Nalbandian, who was a semifinalist in 2003, was ahead two sets to one, but could not close the match and ended up losing 7-5 in the fifth after holding a match point.
Nalbandian could have faced Rafael Nadal for the first time in his career had he won. However, he did show a positive sign for the last part of the year.
On the other hand, Gonzalez, who lost in the first round, and Cañas, who lost in the second, could not live up to the expectations.
Even though the most important Latin American players are gone, the U.S. Open still has two survivors who will not surrender so easily. Chela faces an easier opponent than Monaco, although at this stage, nobody can take anything for granted. And nobody can take away the sensation of a new victory.
Gustavo Goitia is the tennis writer for ESPNdeportes.com.