There he was, theman's man, down. On his hands and knees, looking weak. Everyone in the placesensed that it would soon be over, because it wasn't the first time he hadshown his fragility. Yes, he had stung his opponent, and yes, there were timeswhen you would jump up from your seat in astonishment at the things RafaelNadal could do. But he had had his big chance, serving at 5--4 in the secondset, and thrown it away with a double fault. He had shanked that volley to losehis serve at 1--2 in the fourth set. Now the man with biceps like tennis balls,the one whose on-court celebrations always end with an uppercut, was crawlingon the turf, having slipped
on the grass ashe lost an eight-stroke rally. The clock read 4:53 p.m., and Nadal's serve wasabout to be broken again. The other man watched him get up. The other mandoesn't wear a tank top. He's a dandy, in fact; these days he walks on thecourt wearing a cream-colored sport coat with a crest on the pocket. RogerFederer, faced with a scrap, was supposed to be the weak one this day.
Let's be clear.As the three-time defending champion, the 24-year-old Federer was favored towin the Wimbledon singles title on Sunday. He'd come into the final as theworld's No. 1 player, riding a three-year, 47-match winning streak on grass.Yet against Nadal, Federer had struggled on other surfaces, losing fivestraight matches to the Spanish wunderkind, a two-time French Open championwith no fear, no surrender and, until Sunday, no reason to think about either.Hadn't Nadal rolled through the Wimbledon draw, his grass-court knowledgeseeming to triple with each win? Hadn't he survived a five-set serve-and-volleybarrage from Robert Kendrick of the U.S., then bludgeoned retiring legend AndreAgassi (page 60)? Hadn't he gone 80 straight games without losing serve?Nadal's run to the final had forced everyone to reconsider the possibilities."If there's somebody who can do it," Agassi said of beating Federer ongrass, "it can be him."
Meanwhile, therelingered about Federer a strange but nagging question, prompted by his timidloss to Nadal at Roland Garros last month and by the world No. 2'stestosterone-laced game. "Is Rafa in Federer's head?" went the politeversion, but their contrasting styles--Stanley Kowalski versus FredAstaire--made it easy for someone like retired Swedish champion Mats Wilanderto declare, as he did after Paris, that Federer's cojones disappear wheneverNadal walks on the court. It's an absurd notion, and Federer's response wasdismissive. "Very disappointing," he said last week. "Next time Isee [Wilander], maybe I'll say something. Or maybe he's not [man enough] to bearound me."
July 16, 2006
Meanwhile Nadalhimself called Wilander's assertion "a crazy thing, because if [Federerdoesn't] have balls, who has? Who wins three consecutive Grand Slam titles,makes the final at Roland Garros, wins three consecutive Wimbledons and makesthe final this time? Who lost [only] four matches in one year? He has very goodballs."
On Sunday,Federer proved it. Faced with what he called "the biggest match of mylife," he gave a serving clinic and blitzed Nadal in the first set, thenwithstood Nadal's inevitable countercharge and was the stronger player underpressure. That last development was the surprise, because before Sunday nothinghad seemed to subvert Nadal's confidence--not sniping from other players abouthis slow play, and not the reports in a French newspaper last week that he waslinked to a Spanish investigation into performance-enhancing drugs, whose usehe hotly denied. It was only when Federer won rally after key rally and forcedNadal to dig low for sliced backhands that the 20-year-old's game face fellaway. For the first time in a while he actually looked young. The match ended,appropriately enough, with a backhand wide from Nadal, a final breakdown of hisform. The scoreboard read 6--0, 7--6, 6--7, 6--3.
Federer walked tothe net looking relieved at having won his eighth Grand Slam singles title andfourth straight at the All England Club. He had had, on paper anyway, a killerdraw filled with attacking players who had beaten him before, but over thefortnight he had crushed them all. Nadal, though, was different--a puzzle that,until Sunday, Federer had yet to solve. A loss to him at Wimbledon would'vebeen catastrophic. As Federer said afterward, "People were saying, What ifhe beats me on grass? Then he will beat me everywhere else too. I knew theimportance for him and me."
Partly, Federerwas talking about history: about his trying to surpass Pete Sampras's sevenWimbledon championships and 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and about Nadal'strying to become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to nail the FrenchOpen--Wimbledon double. But this year's Wimbledon ended up being less aboutchallenging the past than about shoring up the present. Both the men's andwomen's No. 1s went into the tournament dogged by doubts. Federer answered hisby finally beating Nadal in a major, and 27-year-old Amélie Mauresmo answeredhers by not choking in tennis's cathedral. "I don't want anybody to talkabout my nerves anymore, you know?" Mauresmo announced on Saturday to13,798 fans at Centre Court--and millions more in the tennis world--afterbeating Justine Henin-Hardenne 2--6, 6--3, 6--4 to become the first Frenchwomanto win a Wimbledon singles title since 1925.
She shouldn'thave had to say so. The longtime knock on Mauresmo's competitive fortitudeshould have been put to rest by her run to the Australian Open title lastJanuary. But three of her opponents in Melbourne had retired with injuries,including Henin-Hardenne, who withdrew during the final because of stomachcramps when Mauresmo was just four games from victory. It didn't help thatHenin-Hardenne did not apologize, then or later, for not giving Mauresmo thelong-awaited satisfaction of winning her first Grand Slam title the right way,on match point. "It's far away from me now," Henin-Hardenne said midwaythrough Wimbledon.
For Mauresmo, itwas anything but far away. The two women had been good friends before theAussie Open final, sharing meals on the road and serving as bridesmaids at the2004 wedding of French pro Nathalie Déchy. But asked last week if she andHenin-Hardenne were still close, Mauresmo said, "No. I had a lot of respectfor the champion she is and all that's she's achieved, but I don't feel [herwithdrawal in Melbourne] is a champion's behavior. Especially since, I think,the first thing she said at the [postmatch] press conference was, 'Well, Icouldn't win the match anyway.' So you have to think: Did you pull out becauseyou felt you could not win [or] because of the way you were feeling? There'sstill that question."
And so a questionlingered about Mauresmo, too, as she cut through the Wimbledon draw: Did shetruly have the will to win a Grand Slam final? She toughed out a three-set winover 2004 French Open champion Anastasia Myskina in the quarterfinals, but inher semifinal against '04 Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova, after Mauresmo racedto a 6--3, 3--1 lead and then held three break points on Sharapova's serve, anear palpable fear rose off her broad shoulders. Sharapova won four straightgames, and then Mauresmo double-faulted twice in a row. The tension was sothick that when Mauresmo won the next point, she shrieked in relief. Sharapovawon the second set 6--3, but in the third Mauresmo was a different player,serving and volleying with ease, stylishly bulldozing Sharapova 6--2. "Ikept fighting," Mauresmo said afterward. "In the third set I couldhave--how do you say?--let it go. Didn't happen."
That set up thesecond rematch everyone wanted to see at Wimbledon, after Federer-Nadal: ahealthy Henin-Hardenne against the player who was chasing that Grand Slam matchpoint, that celebration she never experienced in Melbourne. "You win thatlast point, it's something you feel," said nine-time Slam doubles championJonas Bjorkman after losing his semifinal match against Federer on Friday."I will support Mauresmo because she deserves to win a final where sheactually wins it."
In the end,appropriately, the women's title match came down to nerve. Stiffening when onceshe crumbled, Mauresmo found her game in the second set just as Henin-Hardennebegan shooting wild flares with her forehand. In the third set Mauresmo's firstserve kicked into championship gear, and she rode an early break to a 5--4lead. She sat through the changeover knowing she had the title on her racket.But in perhaps the clearest sign of her newfound control over what she calls"the mental," Mauresmo didn't think of redemption, nor of her mixedfeelings toward Henin-Hardenne. "It's in the past, and it was a totallydifferent game and environment," she said of Australia. "On D day youhave to perform--whatever happened before, whatever is going to happenafter."
Two aces and atextbook serve-and-volley got her to match point at 40--30. After a let firstserve, Mauresmo bounced the ball seemingly forever, tossed it up and,reconsidering the delivery, caught it. Then she served long. She lookednervous--but wasn't. Mauresmo served again quickly. She and Henin-Hardenneengaged in a short, unmemorable rally, and the seemingly tougher Belgiancracked first, pushing a weak forehand into the net. Mauresmo had truly earneda Grand Slam title, and the one that matters most. She threw up her arms. Herknees began to give. The racket tumbled from her trembling hands, and she sank,crying, to her knees.
"That's whyyou play," Mauresmo said afterward. "That's why you practice: becauseyou dream of that moment. How is it going to be? How am I going to be? And thisadrenaline, this emotion--it's really going through the whole body. It's toughto put in words the relief, the joy. Because when you think about it, when youlook back, it's this you're going to remember: this moment. And this moment isamazing."
How much Nadalwants this moment, too, was the fortnight's revelation. The winner of a record60 straight matches on clay and the citizen of Tennis Nation most likely tosay, "Grass is for cows," Nadal stunned everyone with his showing atWimbledon. He had played only 16 matches on grass in his life before startinghis 2006 run at the All England Club, but after beating Agassi, he began tothink he could really win it all. Entering the locker room last Friday afterdefeating Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus to secure a place in the final, Nadalrealized what he had done and burst into tears.
It wasn't theonly time he would come off a bit overwhelmed, but no one should expect that tolast. He fell on Sunday, hard, but he will get up. "Roger beat me, but it'sO.K.--when I played my best tennis, the match was very close," Nadal said."That's good. Because this is his best surface, no?"
In other words,the hard-court season looms, and at its end comes the U.S. Open in late August.Federer said on Sunday that he's less interested in playing Nadal again than inreaching another Grand Slam final, but Nadal wants another crack at the king.And another. With this one win, Federer has made theirs a real rivalry atlast.
"I am goingto try my best," Nadal said. "But sometimes it's not just tennis, no?You need belief about victory. Some players, when they play [Roger], they don'tbelieve. But I believe in victory always. I know it's not impossible."
Read JonWertheim's Tennis Mailbag every Wednesday at SI.com/more.
Nadal wants another crack at the king. And another.With this one win, Federer has made theirs a real rivalry at last.
Nadal's run to the final forced everyone to reconsider the possibilities."If there's somebody who can do it," Agassi said of beating Federer at theAll England Club, "it can be him."
Nadal's athleticism enabled him to hit powerful drives from a crouch and wasnearly enough to offset Federer's elegant shotmaking.