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Got Any More Questions?
S.L. Price
July 17, 2006
Could Roger Federer finally beat a certain Spaniard? Could Am�lie Mauresmo master her nerves on the biggest stage? Both players delivered their answers-forcefully-at Wimbledon
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July 17, 2006

Got Any More Questions?

Could Roger Federer finally beat a certain Spaniard? Could Am�lie Mauresmo master her nerves on the biggest stage? Both players delivered their answers-forcefully-at Wimbledon

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There he was, the man's man, down. On his hands and knees, looking weak. Everyone in the place sensed that it would soon be over, because it wasn't the first time he had shown his fragility. Yes, he had stung his opponent, and yes, there were times when you would jump up from your seat in astonishment at the things Rafael Nadal could do. But he had had his big chance, serving at 5--4 in the second set, and thrown it away with a double fault. He had shanked that volley to lose his serve at 1--2 in the fourth set. Now the man with biceps like tennis balls, the one whose on-court celebrations always end with an uppercut, was crawling on the turf, having slipped

on the grass as he lost an eight-stroke rally. The clock read 4:53 p.m., and Nadal's serve was about to be broken again. The other man watched him get up. The other man doesn't wear a tank top. He's a dandy, in fact; these days he walks on the court wearing a cream-colored sport coat with a crest on the pocket. Roger Federer, faced with a scrap, was supposed to be the weak one this day.

Let's be clear. As the three-time defending champion, the 24-year-old Federer was favored to win the Wimbledon singles title on Sunday. He'd come into the final as the world's No. 1 player, riding a three-year, 47-match winning streak on grass. Yet against Nadal, Federer had struggled on other surfaces, losing five straight matches to the Spanish wunderkind, a two-time French Open champion with no fear, no surrender and, until Sunday, no reason to think about either. Hadn't Nadal rolled through the Wimbledon draw, his grass-court knowledge seeming to triple with each win? Hadn't he survived a five-set serve-and-volley barrage from Robert Kendrick of the U.S., then bludgeoned retiring legend Andre Agassi (page 60)? Hadn't he gone 80 straight games without losing serve? Nadal's run to the final had forced everyone to reconsider the possibilities. "If there's somebody who can do it," Agassi said of beating Federer on grass, "it can be him."

Meanwhile, there lingered about Federer a strange but nagging question, prompted by his timid loss to Nadal at Roland Garros last month and by the world No. 2's testosterone-laced game. "Is Rafa in Federer's head?" went the polite version, but their contrasting styles--Stanley Kowalski versus Fred Astaire--made it easy for someone like retired Swedish champion Mats Wilander to declare, as he did after Paris, that Federer's cojones disappear whenever Nadal walks on the court. It's an absurd notion, and Federer's response was dismissive. "Very disappointing," he said last week. "Next time I see [Wilander], maybe I'll say something. Or maybe he's not [man enough] to be around me."

Meanwhile Nadal himself called Wilander's assertion "a crazy thing, because if [Federer doesn't] have balls, who has? Who wins three consecutive Grand Slam titles, makes the final at Roland Garros, wins three consecutive Wimbledons and makes the final this time? Who lost [only] four matches in one year? He has very good balls."

On Sunday, Federer proved it. Faced with what he called "the biggest match of my life," he gave a serving clinic and blitzed Nadal in the first set, then withstood Nadal's inevitable countercharge and was the stronger player under pressure. That last development was the surprise, because before Sunday nothing had seemed to subvert Nadal's confidence--not sniping from other players about his slow play, and not the reports in a French newspaper last week that he was linked to a Spanish investigation into performance-enhancing drugs, whose use he hotly denied. It was only when Federer won rally after key rally and forced Nadal to dig low for sliced backhands that the 20-year-old's game face fell away. For the first time in a while he actually looked young. The match ended, appropriately enough, with a backhand wide from Nadal, a final breakdown of his form. The scoreboard read 6--0, 7--6, 6--7, 6--3.

Federer walked to the net looking relieved at having won his eighth Grand Slam singles title and fourth straight at the All England Club. He had had, on paper anyway, a killer draw filled with attacking players who had beaten him before, but over the fortnight he had crushed them all. Nadal, though, was different--a puzzle that, until Sunday, Federer had yet to solve. A loss to him at Wimbledon would've been catastrophic. As Federer said afterward, "People were saying, What if he beats me on grass? Then he will beat me everywhere else too. I knew the importance for him and me."

Partly, Federer was talking about history: about his trying to surpass Pete Sampras's seven Wimbledon championships and 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and about Nadal's trying to become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to nail the French Open-- Wimbledon double. But this year's Wimbledon ended up being less about challenging the past than about shoring up the present. Both the men's and women's No. 1s went into the tournament dogged by doubts. Federer answered his by finally beating Nadal in a major, and 27-year-old Am�lie Mauresmo answered hers by not choking in tennis's cathedral. "I don't want anybody to talk about my nerves anymore, you know?" Mauresmo announced on Saturday to 13,798 fans at Centre Court--and millions more in the tennis world--after beating Justine Henin-Hardenne 2--6, 6--3, 6--4 to become the first Frenchwoman to win a Wimbledon singles title since 1925.

She shouldn't have had to say so. The longtime knock on Mauresmo's competitive fortitude should have been put to rest by her run to the Australian Open title last January. But three of her opponents in Melbourne had retired with injuries, including Henin-Hardenne, who withdrew during the final because of stomach cramps when Mauresmo was just four games from victory. It didn't help that Henin-Hardenne did not apologize, then or later, for not giving Mauresmo the long-awaited satisfaction of winning her first Grand Slam title the right way, on match point. "It's far away from me now," Henin-Hardenne said midway through Wimbledon.

For Mauresmo, it was anything but far away. The two women had been good friends before the Aussie Open final, sharing meals on the road and serving as bridesmaids at the 2004 wedding of French pro Nathalie D�chy. But asked last week if she and Henin-Hardenne were still close, Mauresmo said, "No. I had a lot of respect for the champion she is and all that's she's achieved, but I don't feel [her withdrawal in Melbourne] is a champion's behavior. Especially since, I think, the first thing she said at the [postmatch] press conference was, 'Well, I couldn't win the match anyway.' So you have to think: Did you pull out because you felt you could not win [or] because of the way you were feeling? There's still that question."

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