Nadal, Puerta to slug it out for men's crown

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

PARIS — In French they're ''les deux gauchers'' — the two left-handers. At the French Open, one of them will become ''le champion.''

Teen prodigy Rafael Nadal and Argentine journeyman Mariano Puerta meet Sunday in the first all-lefty men's final at Roland Garros since 1946 and the first in any Grand Slam event since 1998.

At No. 5 in the rankings, Nadal is the top-ranked left-hander and the only one in the top 20, allowing him to hit shots at angles other players seldom see. But that advantage will be neutralized against Puerta, third-highest in the rankings among lefties and 37th overall.

''We both have the same sort of strokes,'' Puerta said. ''It's going to be a good match.''

Nadal is a big favorite in the wake of his semifinal victory over top-ranked Roger Federer. The young Spaniard's heavy topspin from the left side had Federer off balance and indecisive about where to attack, and he committed 62 unforced errors.

It was a ragged performance atypical of the stylish Swiss, and he blamed Nadal.

''You've got to understand, you're not going to see the same guy out on the court against a totally different player,'' Federer said. ''The points are played a different way. My kick serve doesn't bounce to his backhand, it bounces to his forehand. So it changes everything. And his lefty spin always takes me a while to figure out.''

Left-handed Grand Slam champions were once common. They included Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Puerta's Argentine compatriot, Guillermo Vilas.

Aspiring to join that group is Nadal, who has plenty going for him besides being a lefty. He's strong, fast, creative and thus far unfazed by the Grand Slam stage.

The win over Federer came on Nadal's 19th birthday, but the Mallorcan is no giddy kid, and he quickly noted that there's still one match to play this week.

''I'm very happy, but not euphoric,'' he said. ''I still have my feet firmly on the ground. I know I have on Sunday, if not the most important match of my life, then very close to it.''

After the buzz that accompanied the Nadal-Federer showdown, the final may seem anticlimactic — but not to the unseeded Puerta. At 26, he arrived in Paris with a career Grand Slam record of 8-15 and a tainted reputation after serving a nine-month drug suspension.

But Puerta's dogged baseline game is to be admired, and he survived consecutive 3 1/2-hour five-setters to reach the final.

''I can't believe that on Sunday I'm going to play in the final of Roland Garros,'' the outgoing Puerta said. ''It really is amazing. It's even more incredible because of what has happened to me over the past four years.''

Puerta's fortunes began to decline after he cracked the top 20 in 2000. His suspension began in October 2003 after he tested positive for clenbuterol, a drug whose effects resemble those of anabolic steroids by promoting muscle growth.

An investigative panel decided against a more severe penalty after determining a doctor prescribed the drug to Puerta to treat asthma.

Ranked 440th last August, Puerta revived his career by playing events in such tennis hotbeds as Iran and Uzbekistan.

''I might be an example for many young people who can see that I've been fighting, that I was very stubborn, that I had an aim and I stuck to that,'' Puerta said.

Does he think he can win Sunday?

''I don't know,'' he said. ''I'm not sure. But I'm very happy with this final.''

Nadal, too. Touted as the game's next great player, he has lived up to the hype and muscled his way through six rounds. He played the showcase match of the first week, drubbing fellow 18-year-old Richard Gasquet of France, and kept his cool against another Frenchman, Sebastien Grosjean, when a disputed ruling brought boos that halted the match for 10 minutes.

Then Nadal ended Federer's best run yet at Roland Garros, leaving the Swiss star still lacking the only title he needs to complete a career Grand Slam.

Federer is 0-for-2 in major events this year, and now Nadal the game's hottest player. On Sunday he'll bid for his 24th consecutive victory, which would surpass Andre Agassi for the longest winning streak by a male teenager in the Open era.

''I would pick him as the favorite, for what he has gone through,'' Federer said. ''But he would be a little bit stupid if he would underestimate Puerta. I think he knows the danger.''

Playing a lefty is always dicey, but Nadal is 2-0 against Puerta and beat left-hander Ricardo Mello in Brazil in February. If he wins Sunday, Nadal will become the first left-handed men's champion at Roland Garros since Thomas Muster in 1995.

And if he loses, Puerta will happily claim the honor.

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