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Original Issue

Seems Like Old Times

A year after his first loss at the French Open, Rafael Nadal won his fifth title and resumed what could be a long reign at No. 1

You're to be forgiven for thinking that was the same old Rafael Nadal who reclaimed his rightful place at the top of the tennis world on Sunday. It all looked so familiar: Nadal again hitting winners off shots no one else would even reach, Nadal again holding off break point after break point, Nadal again thrusting La Coupe des Mousquetaires above his head. Even the closest witness, Robin Söderling, professed to see no difference, but that shouldn't be a shock. The man run over is often least qualified to describe the truck.

And, in S√∂derling's defense, this restoration did carry an uncanny feel of déj√† vu. One year after the flinty Swede ended Nadal's unparalleled dominance on the red clay of Roland Garros, setting the stage for Roger Federer's return to No. 1, the 24-year-old Spaniard swept him aside 6--4, 6--2, 6--4 to win his fifth French Open crown, take back the top spot and restart the discussion about the passing of Federer's reign. With few points to defend in upcoming tournaments, a healthy and rejuvenated Nadal should be far more difficult to dislodge in 2010, and he has every reason to believe he can finish the year at No. 1.

But Nadal professes not to care much about such supremacy, and in truth he doesn't buy into Sunday's easy revenge theme, either. The fact is, his parents' divorce and tendinitis in both knees played a bigger part than Söderling in Nadal's miserable showing last year, and beating anyone in Sunday's final would have sufficed. Roland Garros is where Nadal's rise began, after all, where he builds confidence for the Grand Slam events to come; the French Open is his second home. "This is the most important thing for me, no?" Nadal said, pointing at the trophy on Sunday evening. "When I was crying after the match, the last thing I was thinking was about the Number 1."

It was then, on a bench on Court Philippe Chatrier, that Nadal most clearly revealed that he was no longer the simple force of nature who won here from 2005 through '08. He performed his usual fall to the clay after match point and applauded the crowd, but when he sat down and buried his head in a towel, it all collapsed on him: the pain over Sebastiàn and Ana María's divorce; his failed attempt to reconcile them during last year's Wimbledon; his now-passed fear that he might never again play without pain. His body shook. For the first time on court, Nadal wept.

"[It] was [a] really emotional moment for me," Nadal said. "After you win this big title . . . you lose your tension."

He had had reason to be nervous. Despite Rafa's rivalry with Federer, 28, Nadal's camp now considers the 25-year old Söderling a more dangerous threat, one confirmed when the fifth-seeded Swede used his sweeping forehand and bludgeoning serve to beat Federer in the quarterfinals and end his astonishing streak of consecutive Grand Slam semis, at 23. Söderling had lost to Federer in straight sets in last year's French Open final; this year he was convinced he could win it. "I wanted to do more in this tournament," Söderling said. "I still want to do more."

Many tennis people, including Bj√∂rn Borg and Mats Wilander, believe that S√∂derling has the game and mental strength to challenge for the No. 1 spot. But Nadal entered Sunday's final as motivated as he's ever been, and with a beefed-up serve, some subtle changes to his tactics—hitting deeper, at times flatter, to shorten points—and the usual miraculous retrieving, he put together as complete a performance as has ever been seen on clay. Up 1--0 in the second set, S√∂derling had four break points on Nadal, only to witness a mind-boggling save each time. Yet even if S√∂derling had broken Nadal, it's unlikely that the outcome would have changed. "I think Rafa Nadal would've won the match anyway," said S√∂derling's coach, Magnus Norman. "To me this was something special. Rafa had an answer to everything."

It took awhile for Nadal to get to such a frame of mind. The emotional drain of his parents' split last spring began to ease over the winter, but according to his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, it was only when Rafael hit the clay in Monte Carlo in early April that he at last regained his mental edge. He then won three titles, punctuated by a straight-sets victory over Federer in the Madrid final, and rolled into Paris feeling whole for the first time in 14 months. "We are here, and all is changed," said Toni after the final. "We are very happy. For us it's unbelievable."

Perhaps. But if the Nadal team had its doubts, most of the world regarded Rafael as the favorite when the tournament began; fans were more astounded by a women's game turned upside down. Their disbelief was shared by 29-year-old Francesca Schiavone, who was dumbstruck after winning the first set of Thursday's semifinal against Elena Dementieva, sitting down during the changeover and then looking up to find Dementieva leaning over her. Do you need something? Schiavone thought, unaware that Dementieva was retiring because of a tear in her left calf. It was only when Schiavone's coach, Corrado Barrazzutti, yelled, "You won! It's over!" that the 17th-ranked agate dweller—winner of three tournaments lifetime—understood: She had just become the first Italian woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

By that time, of course, Schiavone had become this rain-plagued tournament's most charming story. With her expressive face and charmingly fractured English, she hijacked the event like Roberto (Life Is Beautiful) Benigni at the Oscars. Schiavone's inventive, spin-happy strokes and her stunning win over No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals made for good tennis, but she also joked about living at home with "Mommy and Daddy" and kissed the court after wins. "Heart attack," Schiavone said after beating Wozniacki. "In that moment you remember many things from when you were young."

Still, few took Schiavone seriously when she said, before the final, "I think it's my time now." Her career had been marked by inconsistent, unfocused and—as in her collapse in last year's Wimbledon quarters against Dementieva—scared performances. Meanwhile, her opponent in the final, 26-year-old Samantha Stosur of Australia, had detonated her side of the draw with wins over former No. 1 Justine Henin, No. 1 Serena Williams and former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic. But stalwart play for Italy's Fed Cup team had given Schiavone a feel for big matches, and something clicked when she began training seven months ago with Barrazzutti, the Fed Cup captain. "She plays with heart," he said, "and that's what you need to take the final step."

Last Saturday, Schiavone stepped onto Court Chatrier to cheers from a group of friends and relatives wearing black T-shirts bearing her childhood nickname, SCHIAVO, with the words IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING printed below. Then, under a blazing sun, Schiavone produced one of the most entertaining upsets in Grand Slam history, a 6--4, 7--6 victory notable as much for its style as for the result. Beating Stosur at her own power game, Schiavone combined defensive grit with superb shotmaking and a throwback touch at the net. She darted forward at every chance to slice volley after flawless volley. Not since a praying Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001 had a player so demonstrably needed to win.

"She wasn't scared," said Martina Navratilova. "The passion came through. She wanted it badly. She was going to die on that court if she had to."

When a deft forehand volley gave Schiavone a 4--2 lead in the tiebreaker—her first whiff of the finish line—she actually skipped to her chair. After a huge forehand winner to make it 5--2 she pumped a fist, and when she followed that with a rally-killing backhand drop volley for 6--2, she leaped high into the air. "I always dreamed," she said later. "When I was young, I was always thinking to win this tournament."

On match point Stosur skulled a backhand out of play, and Schiavone crumpled to the dirt amid a sudden world of noise. She kissed the ground again and stood up; her back and side were smeared with clay. She clasped her hands prayerfully, face alight like the Eiffel Tower at midnight. "I felt amazing today," Schiavone told the stadium. "I feel a really champion."

She doesn't wonder why it took so long. "For you it's a long time," said Schiavone, whose victory propelled her to No. 6 in the WTA ranking. "For me, it's the correct time. I don't care about time. I care just about me and a chance that I took to win an amazing tournament. When you have something so big inside you, you feel strong. Anything can happen, but nobody can touch my heart. Nobody can take it."

Who knows if she'll ever win another tournament, much less a major. Schiavone kissed anyone who drifted into her orbit, declared that her win means that "everybody [has] the chance to be who you really want to be." Her timing, actually, was perfect: A sport consumed by oh-so-serious records, injuries, prize money, comebacks and the endless quest for No. 1 needed to be reminded: Sometimes tennis can be beautiful, too.

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Nadal's camp now considers Söderling a more dangerous threat to Rafa than Federer.


Photograph by BOB MARTIN

RUNNING MAN With no sign of tendinitis in his knees, Nadal could chase down Söderling's hardest and most sharply angled shots.


Photograph by BOB MARTIN

TABLES TURNED Söderling (right), the only player ever to have beaten Nadal at Roland Garros, was no match for the Spaniard on Sunday.



[See caption above]


Photograph by BOB MARTIN

FRENCHESCA With defensive grit and spectacular shotmaking, Schiavone realized her dream of a French Open title and became the first Italian woman to win a major championship.