LIKE SKID MARKS at a crash site, tracks in the clay told the story of the 2008 French Open. Want to know why Rafael Nadal won his fourth straight title, humiliating Roger Federer in the final? All you had to do was look at the court. It was streaked and slashed, indicating the lengths Nadal had raced to retrieve balls. Forward, back, at odd angles, into the courtside geranium boxes. ¬∂ For two weeks, against seven opponents, Nadal performed the same drill over and over. He'd scramble and catch up to shots that would have been winners against any other player. Then, his left hand clenching the tiny 4 1/8-inch grip of his racket, he'd fling back lasers laced with topspin. It was like a drinking game played backward, the chasers coming before the shots. While Nadal's brutal, snapping baseline drives may have won him the points, it was often his retrieving that made them possible. Defense, as they say, wins championships. "Running can be as important as hitting," says Nadal. "That is always part of my mentality."
This is an article from the June 16, 2008 issue
Nadal, a 22-year-old man-child (homme-boy?), has never lost a match at Roland Garros, but this year he was particularly ruthless. Through five rounds he had surrendered only 25 games, an average of fewer than two per set. Then, in the semifinals, he made quick work of Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the Australian Open champ. Finally, in Nadal's rite of spring, he picked apart Federer, 6--1, 6--3, 6--0, in what was less a competitive match than a 108-minute clay master class. "It was a strong tournament for me, no?" says Nadal. Um, yes.
Midway through the match, Federer's face was a mask of frustration. This may have been his best hope for the elusive French title. For one thing, Federer is 26. For another, when will he again get such a generous draw, which didn't require him to play a top 20 opponent until the final? So long as Nadal, possibly the best clay-court player ever, is around, Federer is unlikely to win in Paris. "He hardly made unforced errors," Federer said on Sunday. The world Number 1 didn't help his own cause by committing 35.
There would be no four-time winner on the women's side, as Justine Henin, the champion in Paris from 2005 through '07, abruptly retired last month. Her absence created a big opening for the rest of the field, one that was capably filled by Ana Ivanovic, a 20-year-old Serb who is now, coincidentally, based in Federer's hometown of Basel, Switzerland. Ivanovic was already well known for her bold ball striking, but it was her improved movement and confidence that won her the title in Paris.
After beating Dinara Safina 6--4, 6--3 last Saturday, Ivanovic let out a shriek, and her happiness was shared at WTA headquarters. The women's game was desperate for a new star to emerge. It could scarcely have done better than Ivanovic, an elegant, personable young player who is, as French television repeatedly put it, une jolie fille. Rough translation: She's easy on the eyes.
Ivanovic's backstory is a rich one. Growing up in Belgrade during the Kosovo crisis, she trained early in the morning, before the daily NATO bombings began. At 14 she was discovered by Dan Holzmann, a businessman based in Switzerland, who essentially bought a majority share in Ana, Inc., helping fund her career on the condition that she repay him when she made it big. Suffice it to say, he's recouped his investment. Ivanovic left Paris as the top-ranked woman, and Holzmann, now her manager, was fielding calls from companies eager to associate with an athlete who marries competitive intensity with authentic sweetness. "On the court, you have to be a killer," Ivanovic says. "But it's important [not to] lose your appearance."
That also sums up Nadal, whose ego is as small as his muscles are big. He might be the King of Clay, but he's not the least bit imperious. If there was a kid on the Roland Garros grounds who didn't get Nadal's autograph last week, it was only because he didn't ask. Even after beating Federer for the 11th time in 17 meetings, Nadal couldn't be induced to brag. "I am still Number 2," he says. "Roger is Number 1."
Their next joint court appearance is likely to come on July 6 in the final at Wimbledon, where Federer has been the champion for five years running. But on Sunday evening Nadal's mind was still on Paris. He stopped to gaze out on Roland Garros, the realm he's ruled since 2005. That red clay looked like the greenest pasture of all.