When Martin Verkerk arrived at Roland Garros in 2003, the Dutchman was searching for his first victory at a Grand Slam event after first-round losses on his tournament debuts at the 2002 US Open and 2003 Australian Open.
The 24-year-old entered the event in the best form of his career, having reached the semi-finals in St. Poelten and the quarter-finals at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia earlier in the month. But, despite his form, Verkerk could not have expected what followed in Paris.
After a first-round win against Zeljko Krajan, the 6’5” right-hander survived a five-set battle against Luis Horna, came from a set down to beat Vincent Spadea and stunned World No. 11 Rainer Schuettler to reach the only Grand Slam quarter-final of his career. In fact, it was the only time the World No. 46 advanced beyond the third round at a Grand Slam event.
Waiting in the last eight was 1998 champion Carlos Moya, the winner of clay-court titles in Barcelona and Buenos Aires earlier in the year. The Spaniard had also dropped three sets en route to the last eight, highlighted by his five-set battle against Juan Ignacio Chela in the third round.
In his first ATP Head2Head meeting against the World No. 4, Verkerk showed no signs of nerves. The Dutchman gained early breaks in both the first and second sets and maintained his advantage on both occasions with consistent power and accuracy on his serve.
Moya had twice come from two sets down to reach a fifth set at Roland Garros, and the Spaniard’s greater experience paid off at the end of the third set. Serving under pressure at 5-6, Verkerk committed a double fault to hand Moya a route back into the match. The Mallorcan also applied pressure on his opponent late in the fourth set, breaking serve for a second time to force the quarter-final to a deciding set.
Each of the opening four sets was decided by a single break, and the final set would be no different. After 12 consecutive holds, the animated Dutchman fired multiple forehand winners to earn the opportunity to serve for the match at 7-6. Verkerk fist pumped and gave a wide-eyed stare to his player box.
In the biggest game of his life, so far, Verkerk relied on his greatest weapon to help him across the line. The tournament debutant landed his 27th and final ace, before closing the match out 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 4-6, 8-6 with a powerful serve into Moya’s backhand. Verkerk raised his arms and fell to the clay in disbelief.
The Milan titlist went on to defeat Guillermo Coria in straight sets to become the first player since Mikael Pernfors in 1986 to reach the championship match on his tournament debut.
“This is a dream. This is actually a bit of a joke. I don’t know anymore what happened to me,” said Verkerk.
The Dutchman’s dream run came to an end with a straight-sets loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final. Verkerk lifted two trophies from four tour-level finals, before retiring from the sport in 2008.