John Scott Ferrero of Pasadena beat Kevin Verkerk of Boca Raton,
Fla., in the French Open final on Sunday. O.K., we lied. It was
Juan Carlos Ferrero of Villena, Spain, who beat Martin Verkerk of
the sleepy Dutch town of Alphen aan den Rijn. But perhaps if the
two finalists had, by accident of birth, been Yankee-Doodle
Dandies, NBC executives wouldn't need bifocals to read the French
Open broadcast ratings, and Americans would be in on a dirty
little secret: The faceless South American arrivistes and
Eurononymous foot soldiers of men's tennis are taking the sport
to a new level.
The women may have cornered the market on transcendent stars,
melodramatic feuds and sudsy subplots. (Hell, thanks to the
divergent fortunes of Venus and Serena Williams, the WTA tour has
its own running family psychodrama.) But it is the men's game
that has the superior on-court product: deftly constructed
points, concussive yet surgically precise ball striking and
five-set passion plays performed by some of the world's best
athletes. Even on clay the matches are more than exercises in
baseline badinage. "I'm supposed to do radio interviews when I
get back to the States, and I know the first question is going to
be about men's tennis being boring," says U.S. Davis Cup captain
Patrick McEnroe. "I want to say, 'Were you actually watching? Or
did you just not recognize any of the names?'"
Yes, all those Guillermos and Fernandos who have the audacity to
hail from countries other than the U.S. can play exquisite
tennis. In Paris no player showed more virtuosity than Ferrero,
23, who won the first Grand Slam tournament of his career.
Although he has an unremarkable serve, Ferrero ran his opponents
from one corner to another like a sadistic stage manager. Time
and again, when an opening presented itself, he wound up and
cracked a line-stabbing winner. In the final he played typically
crisp tennis, pinning a nervous Verkerk behind the baseline and
rolling 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. "Tell me," says Verkerk, "how do you beat
a guy who doesn't miss?"
Until he faced Ferrero, Verkerk, 24, had all the right answers.
Before this French Open he had never so much as won a match at a
Grand Slam, and as recently as two years ago he considered
quitting tennis. "I liked going to the bar with my friends more
than going to the court alone," he says. Those days have passed.
While his serve is his biggest weapon, Verkerk has a versatile
game and hits a mean inside-out backhand. In Paris he won more
money than he'd earned in his entire seven-year career, and he
shaved his ranking from No. 46 to 15. Plus, with that serve, his
aptitude at the net and his all-court skills, he is suddenly a
Wimbledon contender. Only problem: Back when he was a struggling
journeyman (i.e., earlier this year), he committed to play
clay-court matches for a Dutch club team next week, so he will
have only a few days to prepare on grass.
It was a banner tournament for the Low Countries. In the
all-Belgian women's final Justine Henin-Hardenne beat Kim
Clijsters 6-0, 6-4. Clijsters may be the girlfriend of Lleyton
Hewitt, the top men's player and perhaps the best fighter in
tennis, but she lacks his guts. In the final, wilting under the
weight of the occasion, she was almost ruthless in her
inaccuracy. To her credit, Henin-Hardenne zinged her picturesque
one-handed backhand and sustained her level of play even though
Clijsters's performance gave her little chance to get into a
rhythm. "This shows," says the 5'5" victor, "that you don't need
to be so big and strong physically to win in tennis."
Though Henin-Hardenne, 21, got married last fall and says she is
"happier than ever in personal things," she has more than passing
familiarity with tragedy. When she was 12, her mother died of
intestinal cancer. Five years ago Justine's nephew died of SIDS,
and that same year a serial killer murdered a family friend. The
day Justine played Venus Williams in the 2001 Wimbledon final,
her grandfather passed away. She is also estranged from her
father. "All she has been through, I think it has made her
mentally tougher [on the court]," says her coach, Carlos
Rodriguez. "She does everything herself, relying on no one."
The tournament's second week was also noteworthy for the defeat
of Serena Williams, whose bid to win her fifth straight Grand
Slam singles title was scuttled by Henin-Hardenne in the semis.
The match was high on drama but low on quality, a festival of
unforced errors and unseized opportunities. After some shaky
moments the Belgian prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. She repeatedly
referred to the match as "beautiful," provoking laughter from
Williams, who said, "I think we both know I didn't play a
It was further sullied by the behavior of the crowd. Holding a
4-2 third-set lead, Williams took it upon herself to stop play
and call one of Henin-Hardenne's balls out. Although the ball was
indeed wide, stopping a point in progress is a minor breach of
etiquette. After that, the deluge. Boos and whistles cascaded
from the stadium's upper reaches. Williams's errant serves and
unforced errors were met with raucous applause. It was,
unmistakably, an ugly scene. But it was probably rooted less in
anti-Americanism or racism, as some suggested, than in the fact
that an elfin French-speaking underdog was playing the defending
champ. (This, remember, is the same crowd that induced the epic
meltdown of Switzerland's Martina Hingis in the 1999 final.)
Uncharacteristically rattled, Williams dropped five of the next
six games to lose the match.
Williams's real undoing, however, was her hubris. As the world
No. 1 she believes she is so superior that her opponent is
irrelevant. "I don't really focus on which person's side is
better or 'they hit this shot at this angle,'" she said. "I focus
on what I'm going to do." The day before the semifinal she was
hardly the picture of intensity, practicing on a back court as
her dogs, a Jack Russell and toy Yorkie, cavorted in the doubles
alley. No member of her entourage was seen scouting her
opponents. During her loss to Henin-Hardenne, Williams played
tactically vacant tennis, attempting drop shots that were as
poorly conceived as they were executed. As for her relations with
the French fans, she was livid that a few days earlier they had
booed Venus after her fourth-round loss to Russia's Vera
Zvonareva. Serena was leaking tears as she left the court. She
later accused Henin-Hardenne of "lying and fabricating" about a
dispute over the Belgian's attempt to halt play as Serena served.
(Replays showed that Williams's objection was justified.)
Therein lies another difference between the men and the women of
tennis. We can't vouch for liberte or egalite, but fraternity was
in fine form in Paris. The men conceded points to each other,
applauded each other's winners and, even after three or four
hours of mortal combat, invariably embraced at the net. Ferrero
and Chile's Fernando Gonzalez practically had to be pried apart
after their five-set quarterfinal, perhaps the best match of the
tournament. "You play hard and fight," says Gonzalez, "but you
can still show respect."
On Sunday, Ferrero nailed a forehand winner on match point and
dropped to the clay on all fours, literally leaving his imprint
on the tournament. Verkerk sauntered around the net to give him a
hug. Moments later the Spaniard was illuminated by the
late-afternoon Parisian sun as he held up the Musketeers' Cup. He
was, at least in most precincts, anything but anonymous.
raucous applause. It was, unmistakably, AN UGLY SCENE.