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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
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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

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It lasted a minute, maybe two. On Sunday night, nearly two hours after beating back his great rival, after falling again to his knees in Paris, Rafael Nadal walked onto Court Philippe Chatrier one last time. There's barely a moment's peace for the winner after a Grand Slam final; Nadal came surrounded by chattering handlers, family members, security guards. But the TV interview back to Spain was delayed. Now came his chance. The world's top-ranked tennis player turned toward the white lines and red clay and took it all in: The empty seats. The Spanish flag raised high. The court—his court—gone perfectly still.

For seven years the French Open has been Nadal's touchstone, the place where he won his first major title, the tournament upon which he builds and judges his year. On Sunday he defeated third-ranked Roger Federer 7--5, 7--6, 5--7, 6--1 to win it for the sixth time, tying the mark set by Björn Borg and, with a 45--1 record in Paris, sealing Nadal's place as the greatest French Open champion ever.

"It's an honor to say I [have] as many wins as Borg," said Nadal, at 25 years and two days the second-youngest man—behind the Swede—to win 10 majors. "That's awesome. There was a lot of emotion."

Much of that was due to the fact that, more than in any of his previous title runs in Paris, Nadal had to overcome what he called "anxiety and fears." It also came from the challenge of fending off the resurgent Federer, whom Nadal had crushed in their last French Open meeting, in 2008, but who on Sunday kept threatening: a 5--2 lead in the first set, a 6--5 lead in the second and, in what proved to be the critical stage of the match, a love--40 lead on Nadal's serve at the start of the fourth set, which the Spaniard fended off with a combination of gut-check serves and gasp-inducing ground strokes.From there Nadal launched the same relentless assault that has made him a force unmatched in tennis history, racing to an easy finish as sunlight broke over the clay for the first time.

To see Federer grin and pat Nadal on the chest as the two walked off the court, to hear Nadal say, "When Roger plays at this level, the only thing we can do is watch and wait, because he's fantastic," is to see a rivalry that, through 25 matches, has been conducted with astonishing mutual respect. "It will be over soon," said Nadal's publicist, Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, on Sunday night. "Who knows how many more they'll play? Then nothing will be the same."

Indeed, their meetings in major finals had grown rare, because lately the 29-year-old Federer had become tennis's forgotten man. He hadn't reached a Grand Slam final since the 2010 Australian Open, and he spent the spring as the lesser victim—three straight losses, to Nadal's four—in Novak Djokovic's seemingly endless victory tour.

Still, something about the clay or about Paris conspires to make the French Open the most confounding of Grand Slam tournaments, guaranteed to halt momentum and, this year, time. Nadal turned 25 the day he beat fourth-seeded Andy Murray in the semifinals, and during the first week of the Open he had looked far creakier than usual. "Seems like I am playing," he said after his third-round win, "for 100 years."

That sentiment actually seemed more appropriate to the women's final. If 29-year-old Li Na's historic win over defending champion Francesca Schiavone, 30, in Saturday's final hadn't been the first by a Chinese—and Asian—player at a major, the fact that theirs was the oldest Paris pairing since 1986 would have set off alarm bells. Only three women had won their first major major at an older age: Two never won another, and the third, Schiavone, hasn't won anything since. "I'm not old," Li insisted all fortnight, but after beating Schiavone 6--4, 7--6, she conceded, "I know: 29 years [is] not young anymore. But I still think I'm young."

The rose tattoo on her chest, her break with China's national team in 2008 to run her own career—it all makes sense when you realize that the player who dazzled Li most as a kid was Andre Agassi. "I saw the guy and thought, Oh, so cool," she said.

Agassi himself showed up in Paris on Saturday with a prediction: "We have a final that will draw the lowest viewership in America and have the most viewership globally. That's pretty extraordinary." In fact, 116 million Chinese—and 1.1 million Americans—saw Li win, according to the overnight ratings, but while the WTA awaits an Asian tennis boom, it might consider tapping the market of women everywhere who have considered firing their husbands.

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