Stories of Tennis

December 31, 2007

Roger Federer'sMoment of Truth

CARTWHEELING WITHtopspin, the ball made a hard left turn as it skidded off the grass, seeminglyheaded for the courtside flower boxes. In full stride Roger Federer caught upwith it and, in one fluid motion, cocked his racket and fired a forehand pastRafael Nadal that nearly left a divot when it bounced inside the baseline. Itwas midway through the fifth set of the Wimbledon final: the most importantmoment of the most important match of the most important tournament in tennis.If ever there were time to conjure sensational shots, this was it.

Until thatafternoon of July 8, 2007, one could have made the case that Federer had neverhad a moment of truth—a gut check, as a high school football coach might callit. Sure, the Mighty Fed had done an almost absurd amount of winning over thepast few years, taking 10 of the last 16 Grand Slam singles titles, reachingthe finals of the last nine majors and, for all intents and purposes, endingthe who's-the-greatest-player-ever debate. But it all seemed to come so easilyto him. Consider the 2007 Australian Open, which Federer won without dropping aset. As James Blake joked last spring, "I still don't think I've seen Rogersweat."

That summerafternoon at the All England Club, Federer was sweating. Four weeks earlierhe'd lost to Nadal, the grind-and-pound Spaniard, in the French Open final.While that defeat stung, it wasn't altogether unexpected given that clay isFederer's least favorite surface. But were Federer to fall to his rival on thelawn of Wimbledon—well, that would alter the balance of power in men's tennis.And it would amplify the whispers that for all the calligraphic beauty ofFederer's tennis, he lacked a taste for combat.

Yet fired up bythat masterly running forehand, which broke Nadal's serve to give Federer acommanding 4--2 lead in the fifth set, the world No. 1 cruised through the nexttwo games. Within 15 minutes he was dropping to his knees in victory, and allwas right with the tennis world. Federer had won Wimbledon for the fifthstraight time, and two months later he would win his fourth consecutive U.S.Open. He finished 2007 within two titles of tying Pete Sampras's record of 14career majors.

All told, it wasa typically gilded year for Federer, not appreciably better or worse than thepreceding one. But his display of mettle in the critical moments of theWimbledon final marked this season as the one in which Federer was not merely awinner but also a champion.

Have GamblersCorrupted the Game?

THE FIRST whiffof suspicion came as the money poured in. Playing a small ATP event in Polandlast summer, Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, then the world's fourth-ranked player,faced Martín Vassallo Arg√ºello, the 87th-ranked journeyman from Argentina. Amatch of this nature typically attracts about $700,000 in wagers, made largelyonline and mostly in Europe; yet nearly $7 million in bets, most of them bynine Russians, were placed against Davydenko. Then, when the match got underway, the alarms really clanged. Davydenko won the first set handily, yet betsagainst him kept coming in. Surprise, surprise: He lost the second set andretired in the third with a foot injury. In an unprecedented move, the Britishgambling company Betfair voided all bets, citing the dubious patterns. The fix,many suspected, had been in.

Despite hisimpressive ranking, Davydenko was so little known that he lacked a footwearsponsor. Suddenly his name made headlines around the world as he stood accusedof throwing the match. (Davydenko has steadfastly asserted his innocence.) Asthe men's tour's CEO, Etienne de Villiers, repeatedly insisted that "thesport does not have a corruption problem," player after player emerged withaccounts of phone calls in which they were asked if they'd like to make moneyby throwing a match. "I don't know if it's the same person, but I thinkeverybody gets contacted," 32nd-ranked Dmitry Tursunov told SI inSeptember. "And whether you act on it or not, it's a problem."

Tennis is a sportprimed for a betting scandal. The players are individual contractors who neednot conspire with teammates before throwing a match—nor answer to ownersafterward. And even the best players can commit dozens of unforced errors everytime they take the court. Who's to say if a player is tanking or simply havingan off day? Certainly not ATP officials, who docked Davydenko $2,000 for"lack of a best effort" in a loss to 71st-ranked Marin Cilic in St.Petersburg in October—only to rescind the fine on appeal. If there's a silverlining to the match-fixing allegations, it's that they appear to be confinedmostly to lesser players (Davydenko notwithstanding) at lesser events. Still,this is one racket that tennis could definitely do without.

Hingis's OddExit

ONLY IN tennisdoes the de facto players' association profess ignorance when one of itsbiggest stars flunks a drug test. On Nov. 1 Martina Hingis announced that theInternational Tennis Federation (ITF) was reporting that she had testedpositive for cocaine after a urine test at Wimbledon. And while Hingis claimedthat a hair test had exonerated her, she said that rather than "fight thisdoping machinery," she would retire from the sport immediately. Meremoments later the WTA issued a press release contending that it had "notreceived any official information regarding the positive doping test."

5 NUMBER OFTITLES RAFAEL NADAL WON ON CLAY IN 2007
1 NUMBER NADAL WON ON ANY OTHER SURFACE
2 NUMBER OF SERBIAN PLAYERS IN WTA'S TOP FIVE?
0 NUMBER OF U.S. PLAYERS IN WTA'S TOP FIVE

MAKING A DIFFERENCE | Liezel Huber

ALONIA RIGGLETON is matter-of-fact as she speaks fromthe FEMA trailer in her front yard, six feet from the house she is rebuildingin New Orleans's Ninth Ward: "I think I'd be dead if it wasn't for LiezelHuber." The unlikely pair—Riggleton is a 61-year-old retired New Orleanspolice officer, Huber, 31, the WTA's top-ranked doubles player—met in Houstonin September 2005, where Riggleton (third from right) had fled in advance ofHurricane Katrina.

Huber (in green), whose church had opened as ashelter, spent 18-hour days providing clothing, food and housing for displacedfamilies. Riggleton estimates that Huber donated $10,000 to help Riggleton andher family, including the $800 rent for six months on an apartment she foundthem in Houston. (Riggleton moved back to New Orleans in '06, and her houseshould be finished in the next few months.) Huber solicited donations fromfellow pros such as Martina Navratilova, Jennifer Capriati and Lisa Raymond andstarted Liezel's Cause (liezelscause.com), a private nonprofit foundation tohelp victims of Katrina.

Huber has helped more than 20 families relocate whilewinning 12 doubles titles. "I'm very proud of her," says Riggleton, whohopes to attend one of Huber's matches. "I will never live long enough totell the story of how much she's helped me."

PREDICTIONS FOR 2008

MOMENTUM WILL build for the players (finally) to forma creditable union, i.e., an entity that will defend them when they fail drugtests.

WEARIED BY the Olympics, Federer will win"only" two major singles championships in 2008, tying Sampras for thealltime record.

THEY SAID IT

"I'm definitely in better shape than I get creditfor. [It's] just because I have large bosoms and I have a big ass.... I thinkif I were not to eat for two years, I still wouldn't be a size 2. We're livingin the Mary-Kate Olsen world. I'm just not built that way. I'mbootylicious."

—SERENA WILLIAMS, January 27

PHOTOBOB MARTIN (FEDERER)EYE ON HISTORY Federer (at Wimbledon) is three major singles titles from a career record. PHOTOCOURTESY OF LIEZEL HUBER PHOTOBOB MARTIN (DAVYDENKO)BET ON IT The scandal set off by gambling on one of Davydenko's matches is the biggest threat to the integrity of tennis. PHOTOMIRO KUZMANOVIC/REUTERS (HINGIS)POWDER KEG Hingis denied using cocaine but said she would retire again anyway. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (WILLIAMS) ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG THREE ILLUSTRATIONSJASON LEE (HANDS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)