Survivor: Melbourne

Feb. 09, 2009
Feb. 09, 2009

Table of Contents
Feb. 9, 2009

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
  • In blistering heat that brought down some of the fittest players at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams left no doubt: They are the undisputed king and queen of their sport and may soon deserve berths among the alltime greats


Survivor: Melbourne

In blistering heat that brought down some of the fittest players at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams left no doubt: They are the undisputed king and queen of their sport and may soon deserve berths among the alltime greats

HE STANDS6'1", weighs 185 pounds and can send a tennis ball pretty much anywhere hepleases. He's won on a variety of surfaces, collecting Grand Slam singlestitles at a breakneck pace. He projects professionalism and grace and adistinctly European dignity. For all his success, he remains modest andgrounded, uninterested in the usual trappings of modern celebrity, attractingattention only with his play. ¶ If that describes Roger Federer, it just aseasily characterizes Rafael Nadal. With all the differences that give dimensionto their rivalry, it's easy to overlook how much these two men have in common.Now there's this, too: They're both pursuing history.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2009 issue

The Republic ofTennis was poised the past two weeks to watch Federer equal Pete Sampras'srecord of 14 major singles titles—thereby solidifying his status as theGreatest of All Time—but it was Nadal who stole the scene at the 2009Australian Open. The Spaniard didn't merely win his first hard-court major onSunday. Or beat Federer yet again in a high-stakes match. Or play some of themost courageous tennis in recent memory. He served notice that maybe he oughtto be mentioned in the GOAT conversation too. Nadal might not be on thethreshold of tennis history, as Federer is, but with six major titles by age22—compared with three apiece for Sampras and Federer—he's sure coming onstrong.

In Melbourne hewon by playing what Martina Navratilova calls "typical Nadal tennis."That is, he combined relentless defense with opportunistic offense. "I tryto do what I need to win," he says simply. Sometimes he didn't have to domuch—in his first five matches he didn't drop a set. Other times he was forcedto tap reserves that few other players possess: It took him 10 sets and nearly10 hours on the court to win his last two matches.

Sunday night'smatch was Federer-Nadal XIX, and the rivalry remains gripping theater. Afterwinning 7--5, 3--6, 7--6, 3--6, 6--2, Nadal now leads 13--6, including thestraight-set whitewash in last year's French Open final and the dramaticfive-set triumph at Wimbledon in July. Nadal could scarcely be more reverentialtoward Federer—the King, he's taken to calling him—but he relishes havinganother tennis genius with whom to match skills and wits.

Federer, on theother hand, still hasn't warmed to the challenge. Partly it's because ofNadal's unusual lefthanded game, particularly the spin-laden shots that bounceuncomfortably high to Federer's one-handed backhand. But much of it is clearlypsychological. Against Nadal, Federer can be uncharacteristically passive andself-defeating. On Sunday night he double-faulted at inopportune times, missedscads of first serves and looked slump-shouldered for much of the match. "Inever really found the rhythm," he said.

Federer will getplenty of unsolicited advice on how to solve the Nadal Riddle. For years, manyhave implored him to hire a full-time coach. Commentator and U.S. Davis Cupcaptain Pat McEnroe is among those suggesting he visit a shrink, "someoneto get inside his head." Others have recommended that Federer summon moreanimus toward Nadal, but that's easier said than done. Asked after the match ifhe were the "true King," Nadal brushed off the question. "For sure[it was] an important title," he says, "but I'm no better now than Iwas five hours [ago]."

APART FROM hisseven opponents, Nadal also withstood Melbourne's oppressive heat. Temperaturesin the city regularly eclipsed 108°, igniting brushfires and buckling traintracks. Citizens were warned against venturing outdoors. The matches continuedas scheduled at Melbourne Park, but the heat so brutalized the players thatduring changeovers they often donned ice collars. (Note to Nike: Newsponsorship opportunity?) Even the fittest players were laid low. Complainingof exhaustion, Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the third seed and defending men'schamp, retired while trailing Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. Djokovic tooksome, well, heat for quitting, but it was hard to fault him: On-courttemperatures approached 140°.

The same heat thatruined the tournament for so many players may ultimately have saved SerenaWilliams. In the fourth round she lost the first set to Victoria Azarenka, atalented teen from Belarus. Soon after, Azarenka began wobbling like aspaghetti-legged boxer and retired, citing dizziness. The second-seededWilliams next faced Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova and, again playing in ovenlikeconditions, lost the first set. She was so hot, Williams says, "it was likean out-of-body experience." At this point tournament organizers made thewise if overdue decision to close the retractable roof above Rod Laver Stadium.Suddenly the match was an indoor, air-conditioned affair. Williams prevailed inthree sets.

By then she had"caught a gear," as the Aussies say, dialing in her serve and findingthe range on her ground strokes, particularly on service returns. In thesemifinals she blasted Russia's Elena Dementieva. In the final, her easiestmatch in Melbourne, Williams humiliated Dinara Safina, still anotherRussian—they just keep coming—6--0, 6--3. Williams was so dominating that,Safina said, "I was just a ballboy on the court today."

A few hours beforeSaturday night's final, Williams was warming up with her big sister Venus andhitting balls so hard that a substitute practice partner was summoned. Yet,much like Nadal, Williams is even stronger mentally. Defeat is simply not aconsideration for her; even in the most adverse conditions she projects anunshakable confidence. "I always believe I'm the best," she saysflatly, "whether I'm Number 1 or 100."

Williams'sattitude has the added effect of scaring the hell out of the opposition.Dementieva, for instance, had clobbered Williams in a tune-up event days beforethe Aussie Open, yet in the semifinal last Thursday the Russian withered instraight sets. Safina, the third seed, was similarly cowed. "She didn'teven let me to come into the match," the Russian complained.

By winning her10th major title, Williams, 27, vaulted past Monica Seles and toward theGraf-Navratilova-Evert wing of alltime greats. In addition to reclaiming thetop ranking, she left Melbourne as the most financially successful femaleathlete in history: $23.5 million in prize money and counting. She and Venusalso teamed to win the doubles. It's another chapter of the Williams Story,which, no matter how many times it's told, might be the most remarkablenarrative in sports. Not that Serena ever expected anything less: "Youshould never be surprised by anything that I do."

THE SAME goes forNadal, though he would never make such a bold pronouncement. In the semifinalshe outlasted Fernando Verdasco, another Spanish lefty, in a five-set classicthat spanned five hours and 14 minutes, the longest match in the tournament'shistory. While Federer had the good fortune to play his semifinal on Thursdaynight, Nadal-Verdasco didn't end until after 1 a.m. on Saturday. With his legsfeeling like cinderblocks, Nadal spent most of his off-day in his hotel room,recuperating and watching that noted motivational sports flick ... The Bridgesof Madison County.

Despite it all, heplayed his usual swashbuckling style against Federer in Sunday night's final,defending his side of the court and pulling off a half-dozen magical shots thatthrilled the crowd and demoralized his opponent. Nadal was visibly fatigued attimes, but he conserved energy and fought through. In the fifth set hecommitted only two unforced errors. "You go there and fight all the timeand believe in the victory all the time," he says. "I think that's whatI did."

At the awardspresentation Federer broke down. "God, it's killing me," he said of theloss, his voice quavering. Then he sobbed almost convulsively, unable to finishhis short speech. ("You're disappointed, you're shocked, you're sad, andall of a sudden it overwhelms you," Federer explained once he'd collectedhimself.) As he had all night, Nadal reacted swiftly and decisively. He steppedforward, wrapped an arm around Federer and reassured his rival, "You are agreat champion. You're going to improve on the 14 [major titles]record."

By then it wasnearly one in the morning. That searing Australian sun had yet to rise, andNadal was the coolest mate in town.

"You should NEVER BE SURPRISED by anything Ido," Williams says. The same goes for Nadal, though he'd never say so.



Check out final thoughts on the Australian Open by Jon Wertheim.


PHOTOANDREW BROWNBILL/APTRIUMPH AND TEARS After Nadal (right) ran him ragged to win his sixth major singles title, Federer broke down sobbing.PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Martin [Seecaption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Bob MartinPOWER POINTS The sheer force of Williams's shots was too much for her opponents.