The setting was the 16th arrondissement of Paris, not District 12 of Panem. The time was tennis's gilded present, not a dystopian postapocalyptic future. The stakes were something less than life and death, but make no mistake: The 2012 French Open represented seven rounds of gladiatorial Hunger Games. Yes, the champions—Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova—consistently pounded the ball over the net with force and accuracy. In the end, though, they survived because they were driven by superior motivation, desire and tenacity.
This is an article from the June 18, 2012 issue
For eight years now Nadal has been a leading protagonist in men's tennis, which provides the most gripping narrative in sports. The plot doesn't just twist with each big event. It bends and folds and sometimes doubles back. Pretenders become contenders. Old monarchs are dethroned. The fierce battles between the second-ranked Nadal and No. 1 Novak Djokovic—arguably the rivalry in sports right now—are less about big serves and deep ground strokes than about imposing will, one man taking up residence in the other's head.
When casual followers of the tennis plot last left Nadal, he had lost an epic six-hour Australian Open final to Djokovic, his seventh straight defeat to the Serb. This was the new world order: After years as odd man out, Djokovic had supplanted both Nadal and Roger Federer atop the ladder. The Aussie Open was his third straight major title. Suddenly his name had crept into the Greatest of All Time discussion. If Federer's best days were behind him and Nadal was incapable of mounting much resistance, why couldn't Djokovic eventually beat their records? Plus, he was suddenly gunning for the noncalendar Grand Slam: holding all four major titles simultaneously. No man, including Federer and Nadal, had won four in a row since Rod Laver in 1969.
Immediately after the Australian final, even Nadal's closest confidants wondered if Djokovic had broken their man's (theretofore indestructible) spirit. They got their answer the following day. When Team Nadal gathered for lunch at a Melbourne steak house, Rafa was almost giddy. ¬øQué pasa? He calmly told them, "I lost last night, but now I know I can beat him again." With that (cue the martial music), Nadal took aim at Djokovic, preparing to meet him in Paris in much the same way a boxer anticipates a title fight.
Nadal beat Djokovic earlier this spring on clay in both Monte Carlo and Rome, further stoking his confidence. Upon arriving in Paris, he passed on the regal hotels patronized by other top players, spending the fortnight at a modest inn owned by Spaniards. His room had roughly the square footage of an airplane lavatory, so Nadal couldn't hold Xbox tournaments and soccer-viewing parties as he usually does. Instead he sometimes sat on his bed, sparked up YouTube on his iPad and watched videos of his wins over Djokovic for inspiration. When he practiced, it was less often at Roland Garros than on courts in the Bois de Boulogne, the city's large public park. "It was," says Nadal, "all about focus."
Roland Garros has always been Nadal's personal terrarium, a venue where he has lost only one match in his entire career (to Robin S√∂derling, in the fourth round in 2009). But his level of play at this French Open was supernatural. Heading into the final he'd dropped no sets and lost his serve only once. Before facing Nadal in the semifinals, his opponent, No. 6 David Ferrer, was asked about the challenge. He responded fatalistically, "I think you can win a set against Rafa, but winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible." What Ferrer lacks in optimism he makes up for in clairvoyance. Ferrer (again: the world's sixth-best player) was obliterated 6--2, 6--2, 6--1.
In the final Nadal, as planned, faced his nemesis, the one player in the draw who could bring comparable hunger to bear. Just consider how Djokovic had gotten to this point. In the fourth round he lost the first two sets to Italian journeyman Andreas Seppi before devising a successful exit strategy. Veni, vidi, vixi. (I came, I saw, I lived.) Next Djokovic faced four match points against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked No. 5 in the world. With the entire stadium against him, the Serb swung away without inhibition. Tsonga did not choke. Djokovic won each match point and, inevitably, the match. Afterward he was philosophical. "I don't want to be wise now and say, O.K., I know how to play when I'm match points down," he said. "[But] look ... this level of tennis is very mental, you know, lots of emotions."
In the semis Djokovic avenged his last Grand Slam defeat—at the 2011 French Open—and waxed Federer in straight sets. It was still another indication that the Great One, while still competitive at 30, is past his peak, especially on a slower court.
Then, in the afternoon mist on Sunday, Nadal and Djokovic marched 94 paces and unsheathed their weapons, meeting in the final of, preposterously, the fourth straight major event. Nadal had been so energized in the locker room that he practically broke a well-wisher's hand slapping him five. Much in the way that he had buzz-sawed through his first six matches, Nadal broke Djokovic's serve almost at will, winning the first two sets 6--4, 6--3 and leading 2--0 in the third. But then, four games from sweet victory, from thwarting the Novak Slam and regaining some measure of supremacy, Nadal played a few sloppy points. At the other end of the court, Djokovic began dialing in his shots. After that, le déluge. Djokovic won a game. Then two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight consecutive games. Against Rafael Nadal. On clay. All of Nadal's doubts against Djokovic had come screaming back.
During a rain delay Nadal's camp told him he was giving Djokovic too much respect. Mercifully for Nadal, play was called at 2--1, Djokovic, in the fourth set. (This is what happens when you have no roof, no lights and start a match after 3 p.m. in the spring in Paris.) After a fitful night Nadal was his old self when play resumed on Monday afternoon. Navigating the clay like a sea captain who knows all the currents, he broke Djokovic twice and closed out the match 7--5. When the Serb double-faulted on match point, Nadal fell to his knees and cried, something he hadn't done since winning his first title in Paris at age 19.
The tears said everything about how desperately Nadal wanted—needed, really—this victory over Djokovic. "If I had lost a fourth [major] final, this would have been very difficult for me," he said afterward. "I had to win. This is why there was a lot of emotion."
With seven French Open championships, breaking Bj√∂rn Borg's record, Nadal, barely 26, cemented (clayed?) his status as the best player ever on the surface. Since 2005 his match record on red clay is 222--9. The crushed red brick of Roland Garros is ideally suited to his movement-based game, his defense-to-offense transitions and his curlicue lefthanded ground strokes, which hiss with topspin. But clay also rewards passion and determination and motivation, not to mention a taste for combat. In that last department, no one's palate is more cultivated than Nadal's. "I fight for every ball," he says. "That's what I do. I fight, I fight, I fight."
Sharapova, too, has an almost pathological hunger. She makes more money than any other female athlete on the planet. While she exceeded $20 million in career prize money last week, her empire has been built mostly on endorsement contracts with upscale brands such as Land Rover, Cole Haan, Tiffany and Evian. As successful as she's been on the court, the sponsors really line up to capitalize on—let's be honest here—her beauty and elegance.
The irony is, Sharapova's tennis game isn't easy on the eyes. She once endorsed Canon cameras with the slogan Make every shot a power shot, and it applies to her tennis. Sharapova simply blasts away, punctuating each shot with a keening RHHEEE-AAAHHHH that, suffice it to say, she is not asked to replicate for her corporate clients. There is little nuance in her play. She seldom comes to the net. Between the white lines, at least, "Maria full of grace" she is not.
What's more, Sharapova's life is unglamorous. She spends her days not at international discos and cafés but on the back practice courts, from Stuttgart to Shanghai, drilling and tinkering with her serve, which she has finally rebuilt into a reliable weapon. Hardly a natural athlete—she once memorably likened her own play on clay to "a cow on ice"—she often spends the first 45 minutes of practice without a racket in her hand, working on movement and footwork. Last week she walked through the players' lounge in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, hair matted to her face.
"It's not a show for me," she says. "It's my career. And I take it very seriously."
But combine her percussive ball striking, her Calvinist approach to work and her competitive instincts, and the result is a champion. Sharapova was devastatingly effective at the 2012 French Open. She beat her opponents into submission, treating their serves like those e-mails that Mailer-Daemon bounces right back. Having lost her most recent two Grand Slam finals, in Melbourne in January and at Wimbledon last July, she "bore down," as she put it, in the last match and didn't permit Sara Errani, a dogged underdog from Italy, to breathe. The score was 6--3, 6--2. If the cow wasn't doing figure eights, she had learned to skate just fine.
Reaching the final brought Sharapova the No. 1 WTA ranking, and winning gave her the career Grand Slam—singles trophies from each of the four majors—a feat that many more-decorated champions (Justine Henin, Monica Seles, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis) never achieved. An hour later Sharapova was still digesting her accomplishment. "No matter how many punches I took," she says, "I've always gotten back up."
Indeed, Sharapova's return to supremacy completed a fine comeback story. For the first chunk of her career she breezed along, winning three majors before she turned 21 and reaching the No. 1 ranking. Then she suffered a right-shoulder injury that made it difficult for her to lift her arm above her head. She had surgery in the fall of 2008 and was out of action for nearly a year. Upon returning, she lost to players she'd once crushed and struggled with the yips on her serve. Her ranking ballooned well into double figures.
Sharapova was young, famous and already wealthy to the point of abstraction. Plenty of other players similarly situated (Anna Kournikova jumps to mind) would have retired and enjoyed a life of leisure. Sharapova? The thought of another vocation never occurred to her. "It was a long road back, a lot of frustration and uncertainty," she says. "But, I mean, I've played tennis since I was four years old. I committed myself to this sport."
What was it in particular that drew her back? "I love competing," she says flatly. "There's nothing else in the world that gives me that adrenaline feel—just being in the moment of a match. It's pressure and excitement and nerve, but getting through that and winning, beating an opponent? It's a different feeling [than you get] in other careers."
As for her own career, she has taken full ownership of it. Her father, Yuri, once omnipresent, hasn't been on the scene for years. She tells members of her small entourage—coach Thomas Hogstedt, a hitting partner, a conditioning coach—precisely where they must sit during her matches. She concedes that she doesn't heed Hogstedt's tactical advice. "I go out there and do my own thing," she says, "and after the match he's like, Really? What's the point of having me?"
Sharapova's independence and her unapologetic appetite for competition are happy anomalies on the WTA Tour. The women's game is in chaos not because of a lack of talent but because of a collective lack of nerve. Five times running, the winner of a major has crashed early at the next one. The defending champ in Paris, China's Li Na, bombed out against a qualifier ranked outside the top 100. Sam Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open winner, reverted to her old ways and choked in the semifinals against Errani. Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki began the year atop the rankings but plummeted to No. 7. Even Serena Williams, normally a pillar of inner fortitude, fell in the first round in Paris to France's Virginie Razzano after having the match in hand. Sharapova? As former French Open champion Amélie Mauresmo put it, "She is so completely involved in winning. Mental strength is her strength."
Sharapova heads to the All England Club as the WTA's new queen, suddenly the player to beat on the grass at both Wimbledon—the tournament at which she broke through eight years ago—and the Olympics. And, scary for the rest of the field, she knows it. "I'm not sitting here and saying I'm done, because I'm far from it," she says. "I have a lot more in me to achieve."
The same goes for Nadal. Having solved what a member of his camp called "the Novak riddle," he has caused the dimensions of the men's game to be recalibrated yet again. Djokovic may still be No. 1, but Nadal, having beaten his rival in three straight finals now, is again playing the leading role.
One of the other great legacies of this top-heavy era in tennis is the death of the surface specialist. Both Nadal and Djokovic are formidable no matter what is underfoot—asphalt, clay or grass. So the rivalry between the young Spaniard and the Serb, and thus the sinuous plot of men's tennis, will continue at Wimbledon and the London Games.
On Monday afternoon, though, Nadal wasn't contemplating the future but, rather, savoring the present. In keeping with his careerlong ritual, he bit the French Open trophy, tasting glory along with that metallic edge. The hunger? It had been sated. At least for a day.