SI Vault
 
Survivor: Melbourne
L. JON WERTHEIM
February 09, 2009
In blistering heat that brought down some of the fittest players at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams left no doubt: They are the undisputed king and queen of their sport and may soon deserve berths among the alltime greats
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 09, 2009

Survivor: Melbourne

In blistering heat that brought down some of the fittest players at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams left no doubt: They are the undisputed king and queen of their sport and may soon deserve berths among the alltime greats

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

Williams's attitude has the added effect of scaring the hell out of the opposition. Dementieva, for instance, had clobbered Williams in a tune-up event days before the Aussie Open, yet in the semifinal last Thursday the Russian withered in straight sets. Safina, the third seed, was similarly cowed. "She didn't even let me to come into the match," the Russian complained.

By winning her 10th major title, Williams, 27, vaulted past Monica Seles and toward the Graf-Navratilova-Evert wing of alltime greats. In addition to reclaiming the top ranking, she left Melbourne as the most financially successful female athlete in history: $23.5 million in prize money and counting. She and Venus also teamed to win the doubles. It's another chapter of the Williams Story, which, no matter how many times it's told, might be the most remarkable narrative in sports. Not that Serena ever expected anything less: "You should never be surprised by anything that I do."

THE SAME goes for Nadal, though he would never make such a bold pronouncement. In the semifinals he outlasted Fernando Verdasco, another Spanish lefty, in a five-set classic that spanned five hours and 14 minutes, the longest match in the tournament's history. While Federer had the good fortune to play his semifinal on Thursday night, Nadal-Verdasco didn't end until after 1 a.m. on Saturday. With his legs feeling like cinderblocks, Nadal spent most of his off-day in his hotel room, recuperating and watching that noted motivational sports flick ... The Bridges of Madison County.

Despite it all, he played his usual swashbuckling style against Federer in Sunday night's final, defending his side of the court and pulling off a half-dozen magical shots that thrilled the crowd and demoralized his opponent. Nadal was visibly fatigued at times, but he conserved energy and fought through. In the fifth set he committed only two unforced errors. "You go there and fight all the time and believe in the victory all the time," he says. "I think that's what I did."

At the awards presentation Federer broke down. "God, it's killing me," he said of the loss, his voice quavering. Then he sobbed almost convulsively, unable to finish his short speech. ("You're disappointed, you're shocked, you're sad, and all of a sudden it overwhelms you," Federer explained once he'd collected himself.) As he had all night, Nadal reacted swiftly and decisively. He stepped forward, wrapped an arm around Federer and reassured his rival, "You are a great champion. You're going to improve on the 14 [major titles] record."

By then it was nearly one in the morning. That searing Australian sun had yet to rise, and Nadal was the coolest mate in town.

1 2