Roger Federermoaned, and everyone knew: It would end soon. Grunting and screeching aretennis staples, of course, but not for Federer. Usually he embodies the quaintnotion of striving quietly. But he had just made his final desperate run atRafael Nadal and the 2007 French Open title, muffing the last of 16 breakpoints he'd let slip this day. It was 5:50 p.m. on Sunday, in the second gameof the fourth set, and after Federer rolled a backhand wide, his first groanechoed across the clay. On the next point Federer shanked another straybackhand and yelled in despair, and the 15,166 fans jammed into Court PhilippeChatrier knew it was done. Nadal had cracked him open for all to hear.Again.
The 21-year-oldSpaniard won the French Open final 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, becoming the first manto win three straight titles at Roland Garros since Bjorn Borg won four in arow in 1978-81. And in beating Federer for the third straight year in Paris, indenying the world No.¬†1 the only item missing from his Grand Slam résumé,the No.¬†2 Nadal cemented his role as history's happy roadblock, the oneplayer capable of consistently exposing Federer's few flaws. As Federer'sforehand splintered against Nadal's impenetrable defense, his will again frayedand his legs began to go. Usually the picture of graciousness, after the trophyceremony he turned his back on a TV interview, slung his racket bag over ashoulder and trudged off the court holding the second-place silver plate like apiece of cardboard. "I couldn't care less about the way I've played overthe last 10¬†months," Federer said. "I wanted to win this match,and I didn't succeed."
Federer well knowswhy. With its endless points and constant sliding, the French Open is tennis'smost bruising test. But there's a term the Europeans and Latinos who dominatethe dirt use more and more these days, and no matter how good their English is,it always comes out the same. "My mental was good," they'll say,meaning they didn't crack under the strain. When Federer is asked to nameNadal's most impressive quality, he says, "Mental of steel. To have [that]at his age is incredible."
Nadal has yet tolose a match at the French Open, a streak of 21 straight, and the way he'splaying, maybe he never will. In Paris he perfected the nifty psychologicaljujitsu of praising Federer as superior while punishing him on court like somemouthy junior. "[He has an] unbelievable record," Nadal said. "Forsure he's better than me--right now."
June 17, 2007
Federer stillbelieves he can succeed at Roland Garros, but for the moment Nadal's one rivalthere is Justine Henin. She matched the Spaniard by sailing through the 2007semis without dropping a set, and then she bludgeoned Ana Ivanovic 6-1, 6-2 inSaturday's women's final for her third straight French Open title and fourthoverall. "Queen of Clay is good," Henin said after the match when askedto choose a nickname.
That's because noone at Roland Garros faced a mental test as tough as hers. Paris is where the10-year-old Justine promised her dying mother, Fran√ßoise, that she would playone day. In 1999 Henin would break ties with her father, José, over control ofher career and cut off relations not only with him but also with her two olderbrothers, Thomas and David, maintaining only sporadic contact with her youngersister, Sarah.
As families go,the Henins have HBO written all over them. In January, Justine missed theAustralian Open and began divorce proceedings from her husband of four years,Pierre-Yves Hardenne. Then in late March, Henin was told by her doctor that tokeep tabs on the chronic asthmatic condition that nearly derailed her career in2004, she had to see a specialist at a hospital in Li√®ge, Belgium. Heninbalked; it was the same hospital in which her mother died in 1995. Then Sarahsent a text message: David was now in that hospital, in a coma, after breakingseven ribs in a car accident. "That was a sign for me," Henin said."It was time. It wasn't too late."
David emerged fromthe coma after two days. On April¬†2 he looked up from his hospital bed tosee Justine, the girl he had watched grow up only on television, walk in. Forthe first time in eight years, the four siblings were together. "Within afew minutes, everyone was fine," Henin said.
Last Saturday shesquared off against Ivanovic, the 19-year-old Serbian whose unassuming natureand winsome beauty led her nation's charm offensive at Roland Garros. Ivanovicdidn't stand a chance. In Henin's box David, Thomas and Sarah clapped, screamedJustine's name and cried. "It's incredible to be here; we are veryhappy," said David after the match. "She's a different person, and weare different people now."
When Heninlaunched her final forehand volley for the win, she threw her racket and handsup in disbelief, then pointed two fingers at the sky, thinking of her mother."Finally she can be proud of the player I am . . . of the person I am andof the step we took," she said. "She wanted our family unified."Later Henin drank champagne with her siblings. "For the first time in mylife," she said, "I feel at peace."
See more of the best pictures from the French Open.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Nadal, who has never lost an Open match at Roland Garros, schooled Federeragain, while Henin (opposite) saluted her siblings.