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Sink and Swim

In soggy Paris, Serena Williams missed out on another record, while Novak Djokovic finally won an elusive title

VOYEUR IS A French word. We were reminded of this at the 2016 French Open, an event that was more an exercise in rubbernecking than in sports spectating. Along with the rainwater—from the wettest stretch in Paris since the 1800s, so severe that the Seine breached its banks—chaos collected in puddles throughout the two weeks at Roland Garros. At the only major that lacks a covered court, session after session was pocked by weather delays. When players were able to take the court, they did so on a damp and soggy surface, the famed red clay transformed into a mud pit worthy of a Monster Truck extravaganza. Rafael Nadal, the nine-time champ, didn't survive the first week, owing to a wrist injury. Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, two other past champs, didn't even enter—he has a bad back, she awaits official word on her all-but-certain doping suspension. A national transit strike stymied attendance. Television coverage during the middle Saturday was disrupted by a power outage. Apart from that, everything went swimmingly.

Yet the most shocking and dispiriting sight during the fortnight may have been of top-ranked Serena Williams blinking. For nearly two decades we've grown accustomed to seeing Serena bushwhack her way through a draw. Her 21 major singles titles put her one behind the record of Steffi Graf; and just as remarkable, before this year she'd been the runner-up at a major just four times. "When [the trophy] is on the line," she once told SI, "it's like I have to get that thing."

Yet, there she was on Saturday afternoon, one victory from her fourth Coupe Suzanne Lenglen trophy, and she was scarcely recognizable. Wearing a mask of concern, she moved sluggishly and often either misfired or guided the ball passively. For the third straight major, Serena—34 years old and on the threshold of history—failed to close.

Jarring as it was, Serena's tentative play animated one of sports' many quirks. Conventional wisdom says that tight and nervous play on big occasions—choking, to be harsh—is the province of the young and inexperienced athlete. Picture the freshman or rookie at the free throw line. Still, nerves can be just as ungovernable for decorated veterans. They realize the preciousness of the occasion, aware how few such opportunities may come their way again. "Nothing made me more nervous than my mortality," says Martina Navratilova. "You know the window is closing."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the net stood Garbiñe Muguruza, a 22-year-old from Spain, who slugged away with abandon. Like an emboldened prizefighter, the more Muguruza saw that she was hurting the champ with her power, the more she brought it to bear. On her fifth match point, Muguruza unfurled a rainbow lob. Serena, again, froze, thinking it was headed beyond the court's parameters. The ball kissed the line and just like that, we had a new champ. Mugu, as she's known, is a star, a 6-foot basher and natural athlete. She will win more majors. The question now, improbably, is whether Serena will.

The failure of the women's top seed made the success of the men's top seed all the more impressive. For all his peerless excellence this decade, Novak Djokovic has been thwarted time and again in Paris. While he's no slouch on a clay court, before this year he'd never won at Roland Garros and often wondered aloud whether a ghost had been haunting his French Open campaigns.

If such a ghost did exist, Djokovic exorcised it. He played survive-and-advance for the first five rounds, seldom playing his most elevated tennis. In the semis he dispatched seventh-ranked Dominic Thiem, a 22-year-old Austrian who many have pegged as a future rival. In Sunday's final against No. 2 Andy Murray, it looked as if Djoker's specter had returned, as he lost the first set 3--6.

Then he simply met the moment, elbowing away the phantasm and becoming overwhelmingly ruthless with his accuracy.

In addition to the rankings points and prize money that made him the first tennis player to earn over $100 million in career money, Djokovic walked away with a slab of history. Now one of only eight men to achieve the career slam—the four-box set—he also claimed the Djoker Slam, having won four in a row, a feat neither Federer nor Nadal ever achieved. He now has more than one foot in the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) Pasture.

After winning match point against Murray, Djokovic fell flat on the court, an expression equally of relief and of delight. "It's a very special day, perhaps the biggest moment of my career," Djokovic said in French after the match. As he spoke, sunlight finally angled through the clouds. The reign was on.



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