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Roger Federer moaned, and everyone knew: It would end soon. Grunting and screeching are tennis staples, of course, but not for Federer. Usually he embodies the quaint notion of striving quietly. But he had just made his final desperate run at Rafael Nadal and the 2007 French Open title, muffing the last of 16 break points he'd let slip this day. It was 5:50 p.m. on Sunday, in the second game of the fourth set, and after Federer rolled a backhand wide, his first groan echoed across the clay. On the next point Federer shanked another stray backhand and yelled in despair, and the 15,166 fans jammed into Court Philippe Chatrier knew it was done. Nadal had cracked him open for all to hear. Again.
The 21-year-old Spaniard won the French Open final 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, becoming the first man to win three straight titles at Roland Garros since Bjorn Borg won four in a row in 1978-81. And in beating Federer for the third straight year in Paris, in denying the world No.�1 the only item missing from his Grand Slam r�sum�, the No.�2 Nadal cemented his role as history's happy roadblock, the one player capable of consistently exposing Federer's few flaws. As Federer's forehand splintered against Nadal's impenetrable defense, his will again frayed and his legs began to go. Usually the picture of graciousness, after the trophy ceremony he turned his back on a TV interview, slung his racket bag over a shoulder and trudged off the court holding the second-place silver plate like a piece of cardboard. "I couldn't care less about the way I've played over the last 10�months," Federer said. "I wanted to win this match, and I didn't succeed."
Federer well knows why. With its endless points and constant sliding, the French Open is tennis's most bruising test. But there's a term the Europeans and Latinos who dominate the dirt use more and more these days, and no matter how good their English is, it always comes out the same. "My mental was good," they'll say, meaning they didn't crack under the strain. When Federer is asked to name Nadal's most impressive quality, he says, "Mental of steel. To have [that] at his age is incredible."
Nadal has yet to lose a match at the French Open, a streak of 21 straight, and the way he's playing, maybe he never will. In Paris he perfected the nifty psychological jujitsu of praising Federer as superior while punishing him on court like some mouthy junior. "[He has an] unbelievable record," Nadal said. "For sure he's better than me--right now."
Federer still believes he can succeed at Roland Garros, but for the moment Nadal's one rival there is Justine Henin. She matched the Spaniard by sailing through the 2007 semis without dropping a set, and then she bludgeoned Ana Ivanovic 6-1, 6-2 in Saturday's women's final for her third straight French Open title and fourth overall. "Queen of Clay is good," Henin said after the match when asked to choose a nickname.
That's because no one at Roland Garros faced a mental test as tough as hers. Paris is where the 10-year-old Justine promised her dying mother, Fran�oise, that she would play one day. In 1999 Henin would break ties with her father, Jos�, over control of her career and cut off relations not only with him but also with her two older brothers, Thomas and David, maintaining only sporadic contact with her younger sister, Sarah.
As families go, the Henins have HBO written all over them. In January, Justine missed the Australian Open and began divorce proceedings from her husband of four years, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. Then in late March, Henin was told by her doctor that to keep tabs on the chronic asthmatic condition that nearly derailed her career in 2004, she had to see a specialist at a hospital in Li�ge, Belgium. Henin balked; it was the same hospital in which her mother died in 1995. Then Sarah sent a text message: David was now in that hospital, in a coma, after breaking seven ribs in a car accident. "That was a sign for me," Henin said. "It was time. It wasn't too late."
David emerged from the coma after two days. On April�2 he looked up from his hospital bed to see Justine, the girl he had watched grow up only on television, walk in. For the first time in eight years, the four siblings were together. "Within a few minutes, everyone was fine," Henin said.
Last Saturday she squared off against Ivanovic, the 19-year-old Serbian whose unassuming nature and winsome beauty led her nation's charm offensive at Roland Garros. Ivanovic didn't stand a chance. In Henin's box David, Thomas and Sarah clapped, screamed Justine's name and cried. "It's incredible to be here; we are very happy," said David after the match. "She's a different person, and we are different people now."
When Henin launched her final forehand volley for the win, she threw her racket and hands up in disbelief, then pointed two fingers at the sky, thinking of her mother. "Finally she can be proud of the player I am . . . of the person I am and of the step we took," she said. "She wanted our family unified." Later Henin drank champagne with her siblings. "For the first time in my life," she said, "I feel at peace."