On the verge of losing his No. 1 ranking, Rafael Nadal found his game again on his favorite surface and fought off a resurgent Roger Federer to win his sixth French Open
This is an article from the June 13, 2011 issue
It lasted a minute, maybe two. On Sunday night, nearly two hours after beating back his great rival, after falling again to his knees in Paris, Rafael Nadal walked onto Court Philippe Chatrier one last time. There's barely a moment's peace for the winner after a Grand Slam final; Nadal came surrounded by chattering handlers, family members, security guards. But the TV interview back to Spain was delayed. Now came his chance. The world's top-ranked tennis player turned toward the white lines and red clay and took it all in: The empty seats. The Spanish flag raised high. The court—his court—gone perfectly still.
For seven years the French Open has been Nadal's touchstone, the place where he won his first major title, the tournament upon which he builds and judges his year. On Sunday he defeated third-ranked Roger Federer 7--5, 7--6, 5--7, 6--1 to win it for the sixth time, tying the mark set by Bj√∂rn Borg and, with a 45--1 record in Paris, sealing Nadal's place as the greatest French Open champion ever.
"It's an honor to say I [have] as many wins as Borg," said Nadal, at 25 years and two days the second-youngest man—behind the Swede—to win 10 majors. "That's awesome. There was a lot of emotion."
Much of that was due to the fact that, more than in any of his previous title runs in Paris, Nadal had to overcome what he called "anxiety and fears." It also came from the challenge of fending off the resurgent Federer, whom Nadal had crushed in their last French Open meeting, in 2008, but who on Sunday kept threatening: a 5--2 lead in the first set, a 6--5 lead in the second and, in what proved to be the critical stage of the match, a love--40 lead on Nadal's serve at the start of the fourth set, which the Spaniard fended off with a combination of gut-check serves and gasp-inducing ground strokes.From there Nadal launched the same relentless assault that has made him a force unmatched in tennis history, racing to an easy finish as sunlight broke over the clay for the first time.
To see Federer grin and pat Nadal on the chest as the two walked off the court, to hear Nadal say, "When Roger plays at this level, the only thing we can do is watch and wait, because he's fantastic," is to see a rivalry that, through 25 matches, has been conducted with astonishing mutual respect. "It will be over soon," said Nadal's publicist, Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, on Sunday night. "Who knows how many more they'll play? Then nothing will be the same."
Indeed, their meetings in major finals had grown rare, because lately the 29-year-old Federer had become tennis's forgotten man. He hadn't reached a Grand Slam final since the 2010 Australian Open, and he spent the spring as the lesser victim—three straight losses, to Nadal's four—in Novak Djokovic's seemingly endless victory tour.
Still, something about the clay or about Paris conspires to make the French Open the most confounding of Grand Slam tournaments, guaranteed to halt momentum and, this year, time. Nadal turned 25 the day he beat fourth-seeded Andy Murray in the semifinals, and during the first week of the Open he had looked far creakier than usual. "Seems like I am playing," he said after his third-round win, "for 100 years."
That sentiment actually seemed more appropriate to the women's final. If 29-year-old Li Na's historic win over defending champion Francesca Schiavone, 30, in Saturday's final hadn't been the first by a Chinese—and Asian—player at a major, the fact that theirs was the oldest Paris pairing since 1986 would have set off alarm bells. Only three women had won their first major major at an older age: Two never won another, and the third, Schiavone, hasn't won anything since. "I'm not old," Li insisted all fortnight, but after beating Schiavone 6--4, 7--6, she conceded, "I know: 29 years [is] not young anymore. But I still think I'm young."
The rose tattoo on her chest, her break with China's national team in 2008 to run her own career—it all makes sense when you realize that the player who dazzled Li most as a kid was Andre Agassi. "I saw the guy and thought, Oh, so cool," she said.
Agassi himself showed up in Paris on Saturday with a prediction: "We have a final that will draw the lowest viewership in America and have the most viewership globally. That's pretty extraordinary." In fact, 116 million Chinese—and 1.1 million Americans—saw Li win, according to the overnight ratings, but while the WTA awaits an Asian tennis boom, it might consider tapping the market of women everywhere who have considered firing their husbands.
Jiang Shan has been married to Li—and coached her on and off—since 2006. The arrangement worked well enough for Li to reach the final of the '11 Australian Open, at which her on-court comments about loving Jiang even if he becomes "fat" and "ugly" endeared the couple to millions. But then she lost focus and exited her next four tournaments in the first round. After an early loss in Stuttgart something had to give. She sat Jiang down in their apartment in Munich and told him he was done. "He can do everything for me, but sometimes I would think, You are my husband, why are you shouting [at] me on the court?" Li said. "This is not easy to change."
Li hired Danish Federation Cup captain Michael Mortensen for the clay season, and his lighter approach yielded instant results: semifinals in Madrid and Rome, wins over four Top 10 players in Paris and a French Open title. But it was Jiang who kept Li calm before the final, when she wondered if she would ever get this chance again.
When she emerged from the locker room on Saturday evening, Jiang grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her. She wiped away tears. "He [does] many things for me," Li said. "I think [a] good gift came back [to] him."
Still, if Li's win was unprecedented, it was Federer who had the fortnight's signature victory. Last Friday evening Federer did what many considered unthinkable: stopped Djokovic's winning streak at 43 with the kind of big-stage performance he hadn't produced since beating Andy Roddick 16--14 in the fifth set of the 2009 Wimbledon final. "I haven't disappeared since, you know," Federer said after the 7--6, 6--3, 3--6, 7--6 semifinal win. "I wasn't lying on the beach." No, Federer's throwback display of attacking, all-court tennis was proof that he has put in plenty of work with coach Paul Annacone, who helped Pete Sampras regain confidence and win his 14th and final Grand Slam title. Indeed, Federer's daring second serves were reminiscent of Sampras's gunslinging and left even Djokovic grinning. "That's what makes him a champion," Djokovic said. "He's a big player."
Of course, Djokovic had been gaining stature himself all spring. A win over Federer would have made him No. 1, tied John McEnroe's season-opening streak of 42 wins and brought him one victory closer to breaking Guillermo Vilas's alltime streak of 46. But Federer stopped that train cold, reestablishing himself as a threat just in time for Wimbledon.
In truth, numbers such as Djokovic's 43 don't have the same resonance in tennis as they do in, say, baseball, but it's only right that Federer be the one to halt the streak. His lightness afoot has marked him as tennis's Joe DiMaggio, overshadowing the dawning fact that he is also its Lou Gehrig. No great player has ever been as durable, and Federer's record of 28 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals—not to mention 23 straight semis and 10 straight finals—may remain untouched for generations. "What he's done in the game is unparalleled," Agassi said. "I do leave room for Nadal to trump [Federer's] career, but as of right now I don't see anything close to it."
Indeed, for pure theater, nothing in Paris matched Federer's win in the semis. There was Djokovic, pushing the match to a fourth-set tiebreaker as darkness fell. The crowd chanted, Ro-GER! Up 4--3 in the tiebreaker, Federer bombed an ace down the T, then another 120-mph service winner to go up 6--3. Djokovic won the next two points, but Federer held the match on his racket. At 9:36 p.m. he launched one last ace. The place erupted.
Federer walked to the net wagging his right index finger. Take it as his message to Djokovic and anyone else intent on pushing him aside, to his critics, to time itself: not just yet.
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