SI Vault
 
THE KING AND HIS COURT
S.L. Price
June 13, 2011
On the verge of losing his No. 1 ranking, Rafael Nadal found his game again on his favorite surface and fought off a resurgent Roger Federer to win his sixth French Open
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 13, 2011

The King And His Court

On the verge of losing his No. 1 ranking, Rafael Nadal found his game again on his favorite surface and fought off a resurgent Roger Federer to win his sixth French Open

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

Jiang Shan has been married to Li—and coached her on and off—since 2006. The arrangement worked well enough for Li to reach the final of the '11 Australian Open, at which her on-court comments about loving Jiang even if he becomes "fat" and "ugly" endeared the couple to millions. But then she lost focus and exited her next four tournaments in the first round. After an early loss in Stuttgart something had to give. She sat Jiang down in their apartment in Munich and told him he was done. "He can do everything for me, but sometimes I would think, You are my husband, why are you shouting [at] me on the court?" Li said. "This is not easy to change."

Li hired Danish Federation Cup captain Michael Mortensen for the clay season, and his lighter approach yielded instant results: semifinals in Madrid and Rome, wins over four Top 10 players in Paris and a French Open title. But it was Jiang who kept Li calm before the final, when she wondered if she would ever get this chance again.

When she emerged from the locker room on Saturday evening, Jiang grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her. She wiped away tears. "He [does] many things for me," Li said. "I think [a] good gift came back [to] him."

Still, if Li's win was unprecedented, it was Federer who had the fortnight's signature victory. Last Friday evening Federer did what many considered unthinkable: stopped Djokovic's winning streak at 43 with the kind of big-stage performance he hadn't produced since beating Andy Roddick 16--14 in the fifth set of the 2009 Wimbledon final. "I haven't disappeared since, you know," Federer said after the 7--6, 6--3, 3--6, 7--6 semifinal win. "I wasn't lying on the beach." No, Federer's throwback display of attacking, all-court tennis was proof that he has put in plenty of work with coach Paul Annacone, who helped Pete Sampras regain confidence and win his 14th and final Grand Slam title. Indeed, Federer's daring second serves were reminiscent of Sampras's gunslinging and left even Djokovic grinning. "That's what makes him a champion," Djokovic said. "He's a big player."

Of course, Djokovic had been gaining stature himself all spring. A win over Federer would have made him No. 1, tied John McEnroe's season-opening streak of 42 wins and brought him one victory closer to breaking Guillermo Vilas's alltime streak of 46. But Federer stopped that train cold, reestablishing himself as a threat just in time for Wimbledon.

In truth, numbers such as Djokovic's 43 don't have the same resonance in tennis as they do in, say, baseball, but it's only right that Federer be the one to halt the streak. His lightness afoot has marked him as tennis's Joe DiMaggio, overshadowing the dawning fact that he is also its Lou Gehrig. No great player has ever been as durable, and Federer's record of 28 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals—not to mention 23 straight semis and 10 straight finals—may remain untouched for generations. "What he's done in the game is unparalleled," Agassi said. "I do leave room for Nadal to trump [Federer's] career, but as of right now I don't see anything close to it."

Indeed, for pure theater, nothing in Paris matched Federer's win in the semis. There was Djokovic, pushing the match to a fourth-set tiebreaker as darkness fell. The crowd chanted, Ro-GER! Up 4--3 in the tiebreaker, Federer bombed an ace down the T, then another 120-mph service winner to go up 6--3. Djokovic won the next two points, but Federer held the match on his racket. At 9:36 p.m. he launched one last ace. The place erupted.

Federer walked to the net wagging his right index finger. Take it as his message to Djokovic and anyone else intent on pushing him aside, to his critics, to time itself: not just yet.

Now on SI.com

Full coverage of Wimbledon plus Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag at SI.com/tennis

1 2