As opponents fizzle, defending champs win on the "terre battue"
For a moment, the girl who had grown up playing tennis in an empty swimming pool in her war-stricken hometown of Belgrade seemed poised to complete her rags to riches tale. During Saturday's final, Ana Ivanovic, the 19-year-old upstart from Serbia, was up a break and 40-0 in the second game against top seed Justine Henin.
At that moment, reality must have finally clashed with Ivanovic - because the next thirteen games were a train wreck for the stunning six-footer, who proceeded to lose 6-1 6-2 to her 5'5" Belgian opponent. Two days after Ivanovic had destroyed Maria Sharapova in the semifinals 6-2 6-1, she too failed to secure more than three games in a match. In a little over an hour, Henin was one million euros and one grand slam title richer.
And then today, another fairy tale ending failed to materialize, as No. 1 Roger Federer went down in flames amid a slew of unforced errors, losing 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4 to arch-nemesis Rafael Nadal. For the second straight year, Federer came tantalizingly close to completing the Grand Slam only to be denied. The men's "dream final, part two," was, as many sequels are, uncannily similar to the original.
The two final match-ups at the French Open this year, both accurately predicted two weeks ago, have been representative of the tournament as a whole. Despite the hype, no classic matches materialized, as the second leg of the annual Grand Slam tour was fraught with flameouts. The quarterfinal showdown between Henin and Serena Williams went down a straight sets affair. And in the semifinals between Henin and Jankovic, the two hottest players on clay this season, Jankovic snatched a total of four games. In the grand finale, after Federer and Nadal split sets, the end came alarmingly swiftly for the 25-year-old Swiss maestro.
The most entertaining match - Sharapova's epic 157-minute fourth rounder against Patty Schnyder - wasn't even a good one. The players made a total of 70 unforced errors to just 25 winners, and the ace Sharapova served while her opponent signaled for more time added few positives to her reputation for illegal coaching and gamesmanship.
It was an odd last two days, as Paris crowned the same champions for the third year running. It wasn't that Nadal and Henin weren't worthy champions, or didn't display the game of champions this fortnight. Nadal has been dubbed the "king of clay," and Henin is widely celebrated as the best female clay-court player since Steffi Graf. But, what led to the two's sweeps were the cases of nerves being developed as matches unfolded. Sometime in the match, the challengers would develop inferiority complexes and bow down to the King and Queen of clay.
In the finals, Ivanovic and Federer were betrayed by their strengths and weaknesses alike. Neither served well, particularly Ivanovic, who found herself frequently forced to chase after poor tosses and admitted in her post-match press conference to "trying just to put [her] first serve in." Both also had a difficult time with their best weapons, their forehands. Against Nadal's left-handed topspin, Federer's forehand could not dictate play as well.
Perhaps they were just under too much pressure. Ivanovic was the first Serbian to represent her country in a major final. Federer was going after the elusive major title that stands between him and becoming the "greatest of all time."
Meanwhile, Justine Henin had finally freed herself from the enormous emotional baggage she carried since she was twelve. After separating from her husband of four years and reconciling with a family she had not spoken to since 2000, Henin seemed less like the tortured young woman who lost her mother to cancer and more like a fearless champion no longer weighed down.
And Rafa Nadal? What does a 21-year-old who has never lost at the French Open have to fear from anyone? When asked if he thought Federer was improving in his Friday presser, Nadal answered in his scrappy English: "I don't feel nothing about that, no. Because, well, he beat me in Hamburg, and I beat him in Monte Carlo, 6-4, 6-4. After the final of Monte Carlo, everybody when I go to the press conference says, 'What's happening, now you're winning easier.'"
It's an honest, confident and slightly ungracious response from Nadal, but he is the first man to win three straight French Open titles since Bjorn Borg.
So Ana, Jelena, Novak, Nikolay, Nicole and Maria still have something to learn about winning on the dirt. But the upside (especially for Andy Roddick): only two weeks until Wimbledon.
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