John Scott Ferrero of Pasadena beat Kevin Verkerk of Boca Raton, Fla., in the French Open final on Sunday. O.K., we lied. It was Juan Carlos Ferrero of Villena, Spain, who beat Martin Verkerk of the sleepy Dutch town of Alphen aan den Rijn. But perhaps if the two finalists had, by accident of birth, been Yankee-Doodle Dandies, NBC executives wouldn't need bifocals to read the French Open broadcast ratings, and Americans would be in on a dirty little secret: The faceless South American arrivistes and Eurononymous foot soldiers of men's tennis are taking the sport to a new level.
The women may have cornered the market on transcendent stars, melodramatic feuds and sudsy subplots. (Hell, thanks to the divergent fortunes of Venus and Serena Williams, the WTA tour has its own running family psychodrama.) But it is the men's game that has the superior on-court product: deftly constructed points, concussive yet surgically precise ball striking and five-set passion plays performed by some of the world's best athletes. Even on clay the matches are more than exercises in baseline badinage. "I'm supposed to do radio interviews when I get back to the States, and I know the first question is going to be about men's tennis being boring," says U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "I want to say, 'Were you actually watching? Or did you just not recognize any of the names?' "
Yes, all those Guillermos and Fernandos who have the audacity to hail from countries other than the U.S. can play exquisite tennis. In Paris no player showed more virtuosity than Ferrero, 23, who won the first Grand Slam tournament of his career. Although he has an unremarkable serve, Ferrero ran his opponents from one corner to another like a sadistic stage manager. Time and again, when an opening presented itself, he wound up and cracked a line-stabbing winner. In the final he played typically crisp tennis, pinning a nervous Verkerk behind the baseline and rolling 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. "Tell me," says Verkerk, "how do you beat a guy who doesn't miss?"
Until he faced Ferrero, Verkerk, 24, had all the right answers. Before this French Open he had never so much as won a match at a Grand Slam, and as recently as two years ago he considered quitting tennis. "I liked going to the bar with my friends more than going to the court alone," he says. Those days have passed. While his serve is his biggest weapon, Verkerk has a versatile game and hits a mean inside-out backhand. In Paris he won more money than he'd earned in his entire seven-year career, and he shaved his ranking from No. 46 to 15. Plus, with that serve, his aptitude at the net and his all-court skills, he is suddenly a Wimbledon contender. Only problem: Back when he was a struggling journeyman (i.e., earlier this year), he committed to play clay-court matches for a Dutch club team next week, so he will have only a few days to prepare on grass.
It was a banner tournament for the Low Countries. In the all-Belgian women's final Justine Henin-Hardenne beat Kim Clijsters 6-0, 6-4. Clijsters may be the girlfriend of Lleyton Hewitt, the top men's player and perhaps the best fighter in tennis, but she lacks his guts. In the final, wilting under the weight of the occasion, she was almost ruthless in her inaccuracy. To her credit, Henin-Hardenne zinged her picturesque one-handed backhand and sustained her level of play even though Clijsters's performance gave her little chance to get into a rhythm. "This shows," says the 5'5" victor, "that you don't need to be so big and strong physically to win in tennis."
Though Henin-Hardenne, 21, got married last fall and says she is "happier than ever in personal things," she has more than passing familiarity with tragedy. When she was 12, her mother died of intestinal cancer. Five years ago Justine's nephew died of SIDS, and that same year a serial killer murdered a family friend. The day Justine played Venus Williams in the 2001 Wimbledon final, her grandfather passed away. She is also estranged from her father. "All she has been through, I think it has made her mentally tougher [on the court]," says her coach, Carlos Rodriguez. "She does everything herself, relying on no one."
The tournament's second week was also noteworthy for the defeat of Serena Williams, whose bid to win her fifth straight Grand Slam singles title was scuttled by Henin-Hardenne in the semis. The match was high on drama but low on quality, a festival of unforced errors and unseized opportunities. After some shaky moments the Belgian prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. She repeatedly referred to the match as "beautiful," provoking laughter from Williams, who said, "I think we both know I didn't play a beautiful match."
It was further sullied by the behavior of the crowd. Holding a 4-2 third-set lead, Williams took it upon herself to stop play and call one of Henin-Hardenne's balls out. Although the ball was indeed wide, stopping a point in progress is a minor breach of etiquette. After that, the deluge. Boos and whistles cascaded from the stadium's upper reaches. Williams's errant serves and unforced errors were met with raucous applause. It was, unmistakably, an ugly scene. But it was probably rooted less in anti-Americanism or racism, as some suggested, than in the fact that an elfin French-speaking underdog was playing the defending champ. (This, remember, is the same crowd that induced the epic meltdown of Switzerland's Martina Hingis in the 1999 final.) Uncharacteristically rattled, Williams dropped five of the next six games to lose the match.
Williams's real undoing, however, was her hubris. As the world No. 1 she believes she is so superior that her opponent is irrelevant. "I don't really focus on which person's side is better or 'they hit this shot at this angle,' " she said. "I focus on what I'm going to do." The day before the semifinal she was hardly the picture of intensity, practicing on a back court as her dogs, a Jack Russell and toy Yorkie, cavorted in the doubles alley. No member of her entourage was seen scouting her opponents. During her loss to Henin-Hardenne, Williams played tactically vacant tennis, attempting drop shots that were as poorly conceived as they were executed. As for her relations with the French fans, she was livid that a few days earlier they had booed Venus after her fourth-round loss to Russia's Vera Zvonareva. Serena was leaking tears as she left the court. She later accused Henin-Hardenne of "lying and fabricating" about a dispute over the Belgian's attempt to halt play as Serena served. (Replays showed that Williams's objection was justified.)
Therein lies another difference between the men and the women of tennis. We can't vouch for libert� or �galit�, but fraternity was in fine form in Paris. The men conceded points to each other, applauded each other's winners and, even after three or four hours of mortal combat, invariably embraced at the net. Ferrero and Chile's Fernando Gonz�lez practically had to be pried apart after their five-set quarterfinal, perhaps the best match of the tournament. "You play hard and fight," says Gonz�lez, "but you can still show respect."