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Original Issue

The Winner Within

After losing in the French Open, Roger Federer faced questions about his tactics--and his courage. No one's questioning him anymore

It wasn't simplythat he'd lost; it was how. Here was Roger Federer, King of Tennis, pittedagainst his rival, Rafael Nadal, in the French Open final at Roland Garros.With a victory in Paris, Federer would capture the second leg in hisquest--hardly quixotic in his case--to become the first man since Rod Laver in1969 to win the Grand Slam. It was an occasion pregnant with significance andpressure, one that presented an opportunity to affirm greatness. And Federerfailed to meet the moment. His tactics were questionable. His backhand brokedown. Intimidated, it seemed, by the Spaniard's sheer physicality, Federerallowed a look of fear to steal across his normally impassive face.

Nadal won in foursets that June day, and the result put men's tennis in a strange place.Federer, not yet 25 at the time, had been on the verge of overtaking Laver andPete Sampras to claim the sport's mythical title of GOAT (Greatest of AllTime). And yet the Swiss star had now lost five straight matches to Nadal.GOAT? Hell, how could he even be the bona fide No. 1 now, when the guy rankedNo. 2 owned him? The tennis salon that had always applauded Federer'sindependence was now attacking his decision not to employ a full-time coach.Worse, his courage was called into question. After the French final MatsWilander, a former champ who's not exactly a McEnroevian loose cannon, told SI,"Rafael has the one thing Roger doesn't: balls."

An ornery athletewould have flicked his middle finger at the world. A self-deluded one wouldhave rationalized the loss. Federer is neither. He was as aware as anyone thata challenge had been issued. "It was up to me," he says, "torespond."

What followed wasa five-month stretch of utterly dominating tennis. In London in July he exactedrevenge on Nadal in the Wimbledon final. In New York City in September he beatAndy Roddick to win the U.S. Open for the third straight time. In Shanghai inNovember he garnished his year by winning the Masters Cup. After thatdispiriting Sunday afternoon in Paris, Federer went 46--1 (the one blemishbeing a two-set loss to Andy Murray in Cincinnati in August). And Federer didso while playing with style and grace and artistry. Tennis doesn't truck muchin statistics, but it's worth noting that he didn't rank among the top 10players in aces per match. He did, however, rank first in break points saved.Translation: His success is predicated not on power but on poise. (How's thatfor balls, Mats?)

All the whileFederer has embraced the the ancillary duties of being the world No. 1. Heblogs on the ATP's website. He's a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He conductspostmatch interviews in four languages. Men's tennis may have lost its mostmagnetic star when Andre Agassi retired in September, but when Agassi talked of"leaving the sport in good hands," it was clear whom he chiefly meant.Federer is tennis's ideal figurehead during this global era. In his case, easylies the head that wears the crown.

When the womenheld their year-end championships last month in Madrid, three players had ashot at finishing 2006 at No. 1. The ATP has no such parity. Long beforeFederer closed out his banner year and restored his dominance, he had nearlydouble the points total of Nadal, the next-closest player. Observers haveexhausted the store of adjectives to describe Federer's on-court brilliance.Praise now comes from all corners. "It's a tough proposition to beat a guywho doesn't have a weakness," says James Blake, the top-ranked American.Amid all the fawning and affection, it's easy to forget that were it not forFederer's eloquent response to a challenge--perhaps the ultimate earmark of atrue champion--he might be considered a goat instead of the GOAT.

PREDICTIONS 2007

Monica Seles will retire.
Out of action for three years, the beloved 33-year-old (left) will formallycall it quits and be deservingly feted.

Mid-match coaching will flop.
One of the sport's virtues is the self-sufficiency it demands of players. TheWTA's wrongheaded, sponsor-driven decision to let coaches provide counsel atchangeovers will not only rob tennis of its tradition but also give an unfairadvantage to top players, who are more able to afford the extra help.

The U.S. will win the Davis Cup.
For all the Chicken Littles lamenting the state of American tennis, the U.S.has two of the world's top six players (James Blake and Andy Roddick), pluswonder twins Bob and Mike Bryan (right), the top-ranked doubles team. Short ofRafael Nadal's assuming Swiss citizenship, what's to prevent the U.S. fromclaiming the Cup for the first time since 1995?

The ATP's round-robin format will succeed.
The new setup, in which players can lose an early match but not necessarily beeliminated, will cause initial confusion but ultimately be welcomed because ithelps ensure that tournaments and fans get their money's worth from marqueeattractions.

Roger Federer will win at least three majors.
And the sun will rise in the east.

THE BEST...

Female impersonation of Roger Federer
Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne (below) may not be Miss Congeniality, but inreaching the finals of all four majors, winning the French Open and taking theyear-end Sony Ericsson Championships, she is the WTA's MVP.

Moment
For years her anxiety trumped her talent, but in the Wimbledon final France'sAmélie Mauresmo took a deep breath and outlasted Henin-Hardenne. Interviewedcourtside, Mauresmo gushed, "I don't want anybody to talk about my nervesanymore!"

Comeback, women
After three years away from the sport, former longtime world No. 1 MartinaHingis, now 26, finished seventh in the WTA rankings, proving there is a placefor nuance and guile amid all the heavy hitting.

Explanation
Asked to pinpoint the key to his unprecedented success in 2006 after sevenyears on the tour, Russia's Nikolay Davydenko remarked, "The importantthing is serving and returning well."

Comeback, men
When a French Open fan heckled James Blake (left) for questioning a line call,he invited the fan to hop over the rail and check the mark for himself. The fandid. Blake was vindicated.

Analogy
Discussing the difference between the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, Russia'sSvetlana Kuznetsova said, "It's completely like black and blue maybe, orwhite and black, you know, or red and black, whatever, you know. It's justdifferent. It's like Sprite and Coke, you know."

Newcomer
Even in a notoriously fractious sport, the experimental Hawk-Eye technologythat enabled players to challenge line calls earned raves across the board.Look for more tournaments to adopt it in 2007.

Smile in the face of defeat
After getting waxed in a doubles match in Cincinnati, Spain's Feliciano Lópezgrabbed the courtside microphone and jokingly asked the crowd for donations."I need to collect some money for lessons, please."

Fan
A woman in Townsville, Australia, became so excited while watching her favoriteplayer, Roger Federer, win Wimbledon that she inadvertently threw away herfalse teeth.

Farewell, men
In his final U.S. Open, Andre Agassi created an indelible memory, beatingrising star Marcos Baghdatis in a five-setter that took on the feel of aheavyweight title bout.

Farewell, women
Martina Navratilova (right), in her final U.S. Open (or so she says) and alittle more than a month before her 50th birthday, teamed with 28-year-old BobBryan to win the mixed doubles title.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

ILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIM FILMS

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BILL FRAKES (SELES)

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ALESSIA PIERDOMENICO/REUTERS (BRYAN BROTHERS)

ILLUSTRATION

ILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIM FILMS

TWO PHOTOS

BOB MARTIN (2)

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ADAM STOLTMAN (NAVRATILOVA)