Game On: Roger vs. Rafael
With his conquest of Roger Federer in Paris, teen sensation Rafael Nadal announced the onset of a fascinating new tennis rivalry. Next episode, Wimbledon
Nadal (above, bottom) subdued Federer (above, top) last Friday, then received gripping congratulations from King Juan Carlos after Sunday's final.
They tried something different at the French Open this year and crowned the men's champion on a Friday. The day before Justine Henin-Hardenne made paillard out of Mary Pierce to win the women's trophy, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played for the men's title. It was tennis's most anticipated match of the year, pitting the Swiss colossus who's ruled the roost for the past two years against the charismatic Spanish man-child who's hijacked the sport in recent months.
The atmosphere was electric, but the match did not meet expectations, not least because Federer was far from his best. After the last of the top seed's many errant forehands sailed beyond the baseline, Nadal collapsed euphorically on his back, coating himself with red clay. The capacity crowd and Nadal's sizable entourage erupted. On his 19th birthday Nadal had won the French Open, the first Grand Slam title of his promising career. Oh, he had to formalize matters on Sunday, returning to Roland Garros to beat Mariano Puerta of Argentina, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5, in the actual final. But that match, stirring as it often was, smacked of anticlimax, an exercise akin to signing your name correctly after acing the SAT. "Beating Federer," Nadal conceded, "maybe that was the ultimate, no?"
Yes. By beating the 23-year-old Federer in the semifinals, Nadal validated the considerable hype he's been generating and put the capstone on his 2005 clay-court tear, winning his fourth straight title with crushed brick underfoot. The two players also confirmed a full-fledged rivalry, which had been missing in men's tennis for years. As Federer won three majors in 2004, he played so sublimely that he often reduced opponents to mere foils for his brilliance. He went more than a year without losing to another top 10 player. Even the ATP's in-house documentary, Facing Federer, is premised on the top player's peerlessness.
Nadal, it seems, has filled the void. He started Friday's match by electing to return -- an audacious move for a teenager to pull on the world No. 1 -- and broke Federer's serve. For the next four sets he blasted away from the baseline, his heavy balls raising sprays of dust as they bounced. Nadal's southpaw slugging so infuriated Federer that he swore at himself in three languages and stared balefully at his racket as though it were failing him. And as the match tightened, it was Nadal who showed superior guts. "I was just too much up and down," says Federer, "but that definitely had something to do with the opponent."
Fueling the rivalry, the two players' styles offer a distinct contrast: the artistry of Federer versus the brute force of Nadal. Just as Federer prefers fast courts but can win on clay, Nadal relishes the dirt -- even his skin is almost exactly the complexion of the terre battue -- but his game translates well to other surfaces. The two men have played three times, and not only has Nadal won twice, but he also was two points from winning the other match, a five-set nail-biter on a hard court in Miami in April. "Federer is in a new position," says Mats Wilander, the retired three-time French Open champion. "He has to answer the question, How can I beat this guy?"
Paris provided few answers. You're not going to overpower Nadal. Trying to attack the net on him can be a fool's errand, as Federer can attest after watching passing shot after passing shot whistle by him at Roland Garros. Patiently rallying with him won't work either: Last week Nadal drew as many ooh-la-la's for his defensive scrambling as for his heavy hitting. Finally, you're unlikely to rattle the kid. Even when Nadal played two French opponents, Richard Gasquet and Sebastien Grosjean, in front of 15,000 rowdy partisans in Paris, he was unflappable. "Playing against me is probably not so easy," he says in a rare departure from modesty. "Luckily, I'll never have to do it."
Nadal is the rare tennis player who embraces his stardom. He was omnipresent in the players' lounge last week, shaking hands, slapping backs and working the room like a politician. He obliged countless autograph seekers and smiled genuinely as he posed for photos with every Tom, Dick and Henri brandishing a camera phone. "Rafael is so intense when he plays," says Pau Gasol, the Memphis Grizzlies' forward, who was in Paris last week to cheer on his fellow Spaniard, "but really, he's just a laid-back kid having a great time."
Nadal's insouciance contrasts sharply with Henin-Hardenne's disposition, which ranges from businesslike to ruthless. Let others dabble with outside interests, as the fading Williams sisters do. Let others gobble up endorsements, the specialty of Maria Sharapova. Let others win the locker-room Miss Congeniality award, a dead heat between Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters. Henin-Hardenne wants only to win matches, something she does with startling frequency. Since recovering from a viral infection and a knee injury and returning to the tour in March after a seven-month absence, she's won four of the five tournaments she's played. She's also won four of the last seven Grand Slam events she's entered.
The Belgian's life has been shaped by tragedy and misfortune. An older sister was killed by a drunk driver before Justine was born. Their mother, Françoise, died of intestinal cancer when Justine was 12. For reasons Justine doesn't care to discuss, she is estranged from her father, Jose, and two brothers. This has all, well, hardened her for any challenge tennis could ever throw her way. "I wouldn't have my same personality if I wouldn't have lost my mom pretty early and all these other things," she says. "It's bad in a way, very sad in a way, but that made me stronger."
Henin-Hardenne may stand only 5'6", but she hits as powerfully as any of tennis's so-called Big Babes. It is her toughness, however, that might be the most feared weapon in women's tennis right now. Down match point to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round in Paris, Henin-Hardenne played unflustered tennis and won in three sets. She then rolled over Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, singlehandedly undoing the much-publicized Russian Revolution in women's tennis. Henin-Hardenne completed her run by brutalizing Pierce in the final, 6-1, 6-1. But even as she led 3-0 in the second set, she still questioned line calls and pumped herself up with her battle cry, "Allez!"
Henin-Hardenne and Nadal left Paris riding his-and-hers 24-match winning streaks, and they'll try to tighten their grips on pro tennis during the grass-court season. If Henin-Hardenne is to win Wimbledon, the only major to elude her, she'll need to use her net game, which got little practice last week. But she is still the player to beat. Nadal's power and athleticism make him an intriguing Wimbledon prospect, but with less time to set up his shots on grass than on clay, he won't be the favorite. "I can't challenge for the title -- the truth is the truth," Nadal says. "I need to improve some things in my game for better play on grass." But, he adds, "Wimbledon is a definite ambition for me, and one day I want to win it."
As for Federer, he is the two-time defending champion and will arrive in London as the betting choice. But as he heads to his favorite tournament on his preferred surface, his air of invincibility has dissipated. Touted by some to win all four majors in 2005, he's now 0-2. On Friday night, ever the professional, he took ownership of the loss. Still, it was as tough a defeat as he'd ever suffered. It was nearing midnight when Federer finally left the grounds of Roland Garros. His bag slung on his shoulder, he walked slowly with his head down, tugging and retugging at his baseball cap, trying perhaps to dislodge that Spanish teenager who has, unmistakably, gotten into his head.
Issue date: June 13, 2005