It was a few minutes before six o'clock last Saturday evening, and the U.S. Open was on the verge of being officially transformed from Grand Slam to Grand Guignol. Earlier in the week persistent rain had all but washed out three sessions, constipating the scheduling and igniting calls for a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium. But an even darker cloud hovered over the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow. Looking all of his 33 years, Andre Agassi had been soundly beaten by Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero in the first men's semifinal match. Now the young American, Andy Roddick, was down match point in a third-set tiebreaker to Argentina's David Nalbandian. "Save CBS, Andy!" a fan yelled, aware that the audience for a Ferrero-Nalbandian final would rival the audience for Gigli. But the fan might as well have bellowed, "Save American tennis, Andy!"
The kid stayed in the picture. Roddick spanked a 138-mph service winner to remain alive. He ended up winning the tiebreaker. As so often happens, there was an about-face in momentum, and within an hour Roddick had closed out the match. He had labored for nearly four hours, his feet were caked in gnarly (his word) blisters, and he had to return for the final the next afternoon. But by then it was clear that the fates had already written the script.
The 2003 Open won't be remembered for the rain, the dubious scheduling or the retirement of the best male player of the Open era. No, this was destined to be Roddick's personal debutants' ball. Roddick was barely old enough to see over the net when his name began riding tandem with the phrase great American tennis hope. Even though he had gone on to win 100 professional matches faster than either Pete Sampras or Agassi had, the weight of expectations hung on him uncomfortably. Now the weight is gone. On Sunday, Roddick pasted Ferrero 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, justifying all the years of hype. "Did I win this thing? Was the scoreboard really right?" asked Roddick, still in disbelief two hours later as he returned to the court and sat in a line judge's chair. "If so, I'd say it was a good tournament for me."
So, too, for men's tennis. The relentless parity that has racked the ATP in recent years was mercifully absent in New York. The eight highest seeds all reached the round of 16, and the distinction between pretenders and contenders was readily apparent. In the latter camp a half-dozen players—each in his early 20s, each with a distinct persona—have risen to the fore. Roddick, Ferrero and Nalbandian join Switzerland's Roger Federer, Argentina's Guillermo Coria and the contrarian Australian, Lleyton Hewitt, as players who should be firmly embedded in the top 10 for years. "It's shaping up to be a really good group, huh?" says Roddick, who's now ranked No. 2. "We're all pretty close."
Roddick, though, might be the best of the bunch. This summer on the hard courts, the most democratic of surfaces, he ran roughshod over the competition, winning four events and 27 of 28 matches. His lock-and-load serve is the cornerstone of his game. At the Open he fired a tournament-high 123 aces and routinely struck serves that violated New York City's antismoking law. And the rest of his game has caught up to his delivery. His backhand is no longer a liability. His volley no longer resembles a Tomahawk Chop. He no longer plays with the subtlety of a blacksmith. Against players with divergent games Roddick called upon an ever-expanding vocabulary of skills. "That was the ultimate, beating seven guys in seven ways," says his coach, Brad Gilbert. "He was able to make all the adjustments."
For Roddick and many other players at the Open, the most vexing adversary may have been the second-week drizzle—Weather of Mass Disruption, as it were. That the rains were hardly Biblical made the delays all the more maddening. Across the tracks at Shea Stadium the Mets were able to get in three nine-inning games, but the slightest droplets rendered the hard courts unplayable, and even when the skies cleared, a dense fog glazed the courts. "Finally it stopped raining, and you're so ready to roll," says Roddick. "Then you couldn't play because of the mist? Arrrgghh."
From mist opportunities to missed opportunities: When Venus and Serena Williams—winners of every U.S. Open since 1999 and finalists in five of the previous six majors—withdrew because of an abdominal strain and left-knee surgery, respectively, the women's draw opened up dramatically. None other than Jennifer Capriati proclaimed that winning a Williamsless tournament might come with an asterisk. Still, the sisters' absence was a terrific chance for another player to seize the occasion, to say nothing of the $1 million winner's check.
A prime candidate was Capriati herself, who, at age 27, came into the event playing her best tennis in recent memory. In the semifinals J-Cap and Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne engaged in tennis's answer to a roadhouse brawl. As both players slugged away, Capriati took a 6-4, 5-3 lead. On the brink of reaching the final she wilted, and Henin-Hardenne, smelling blood, found the radar on her explosive strokes. In the third set Capriati led even more commandingly, 5-2, but again she took her foot off her opponent's throat. Finally, Henin-Hardenne prevailed 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 in a 183-minute psychodrama—the match of the tournament, if not the year. As she left the court, she doubled over in pain and was so spent that she couldn't carry her rackets. She walked gingerly to the locker room, where Capriati was curled on a bench sobbing, her best, last chance to win another major having slipped through her callused fingers. After taking an IV, Henin-Hardenne didn't return to her Manhattan hotel until 3 a.m. Saturday and declared herself "questionable" for the women's final that night against her countrywoman Kim Clijsters.
The table was set for Clijsters to win her first Grand Slam event and legitimize the top ranking she inherited from Serena Williams last month. But she too let the moment slip away. Clijsters is the most gracious player in tennis, but that works against her in high-pressure matches. Her rivalry with Henin-Hardenne—the so-called Battle of the Belgians—is redolent of Williams-Williams encounters: awkward affairs in which the more sensitive player (Clijsters) is trounced by the more Machiavellian one. Henin-Hardenne showed up on Saturday looking no worse for wear from her grueling semifinal and, in a virtual replay of the French Open final three months ago, took full advantage of Clijsters's nerves to run away with the match 7-5, 6-1.
Though her strokes are fluid, even rococo, Henin-Hardenne's personality is gritty. In New York she simply outfought the field to grab her second major of the year. Not only was her title free of an asterisk, but one wonders how Venus and Serena felt as they watched. That the 5'6", 126-pound Henin-Hardenne can match the sisters' firepower is one thing; that she is utterly fearless is something altogether different. "Look, if I want to win, I have to be [ruthless]," Henin-Hardenne says. "I try to be very businesslike and serious on the court, but that's also who I am as a person."