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Rafael's strokes of genius

Teen tops Puerta, wins French Open

Posted: Monday, June 06, 2005

 

  Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts as he plays Argentina's Mariano Puerta during the final match of the French Open tennis tournament, at the Roland Garros stadium, Sunday June 5, 2005 in Paris. AP Photo/Michel Euler

Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts as he plays Argentina's Mariano Puerta during the final match of the French Open tennis tournament, at the Roland Garros stadium, Sunday June 5, 2005 in Paris.

AP Photo/Michel Euler

PARIS — Rafael Nadal, the new king of clay, put on a show worthy of the royalty watching him.

Red dust caked Nadal from his hair to his sneakers after his French Open triumph Sunday, the charismatic teen who plays with a pugnacious smirk holding both dirty hands up to a beaming King Juan Carlos of Spain in the box above.

On this day, the scruffy Spanish kid with tears in his eyes assumed his own moment of majesty.

''All the work you've been doing during all those years, the sacrifices, when you reach your goal, it's an extraordinary moment,'' Nadal said. ''For the first time I cried after winning a match.''

In a match as enthralling as it was brilliantly played, Nadal overcame an inspired performance by unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5, to become the youngest men's Grand Slam champion since Michael Chang won the French at 17 in 1989.

Two days after celebrating his 19th birthday by beating No. 1 Roger Federer in four sets, Nadal survived an even tougher test against the surprisingly tenacious Puerta, a fellow left-hander who had come back from a nine-month doping suspension and No. 440 ranking to reach his first major final.

Nadal and Puerta each were artful, feathering drop shots between thundering groundstrokes, lifting lobs that were unexpected. Their full-court scampers to scoop up balls seemingly out of reach drew gasps. Their reflex volleys brought roaring fans to their feet.

Puerta, who played 3 1/2-hour five-setters in his previous two matches, had to have his right thigh massaged and taped early in the first set, but that tweaked muscle never hampered him the rest of the match. Puerta said he could have played a fifth set if he had to.

The differences between them were few but significant in the 3-hour, 24-minute duel, especially when Puerta broke Nadal and served for the fourth set with a 5-4 lead.

Nadal faced three set points and saved them all: the first on a stunning crosscourt pass after Puerta caught up to a drop shot; the second after a rapid exchange at the net that left Puerta lunging futilely for a volley; the third, two points later, a forehand that Puerta charged and netted. Nadal finally won the game after one more incredible exchange of reflex volleys at the net.

This was high-speed tennis at its best.

''I wonder how he was able to get that ball,'' the 26-year-old Puerta said of the break point. ''He has very strong legs. He moves so well. He runs so fast. I was surprised that he was able to get that volley on the set point. I was so surprised that I had to throw myself on the ground to be able to reach the ball.''

That lost opportunity momentarily wore down Puerta, who had gotten a boost throughout the set when the crowd repeatedly chanted his name, and gave Nadal the lift he needed. With the set now tied 5-5, and the leaden clouds threatening rain, Nadal held serve, then delivered one final break when he reached 30-40 with a forehand into an open court and watched Puerta push a forehand wide on match point.

''He must be given credit because there were three points where he really went to get the ball,'' Puerta said. ''I could have been a bit more lucky. One point was a couple of centimeters away. I could still be playing now, in fact.

''But it was a beautiful match all the same. When I went off the court, I knew I had lost against the best player in the world on clay. What could I do?''

Nadal, the first French men's winner to take the title in his debut since Mats Wilander in 1982, flopped flat on his back and lay sprawled on the clay he loves as the cheers cascaded down on him. He had won his sixth title of the year, moved up from No. 5 to No. 3 in the rankings, run his match winning streak to 24, all on clay, and surpassed Andre Agassi for the longest winning streak by a male teenager in the Open era.

When Nadal rose, he raised his arms to the crowd and embraced Puerta at the net, before going to the other end of the court to shake hands and chat with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. Moments later, Nadal scampered into the stands to hug his father, mother and 14-year-old sister, his coach and uncle Toni, and his other uncle and mentor, former Spanish soccer star Miguel Angel Nadal, the famous ''Beast of Barcelona.'' Young Nadal is the new beast of men's tennis, but to his friends, family and fellow players he is simply ''Rafa.''

''I didn't think I was going to cry, but my whole family was very emotional,'' Nadal said. ''In the end, I started crying also.''

Toni Nadal said that his nephew was unusually nervous before this final, and a bit lucky to win.

''In the match, Mariano played better tennis than Rafa, but Rafa had the luck when he needed it,'' the coach said. ''That happens in sport. He particularly had the luck at the end of the fourth set. I was very nervous when Mariano had the set points. But even if he'd lost that, I wouldn't have been scared for him. I know he'll stay in every match right down to the last point. I cried when he won. I'm just not used to this. It wasn't the coach watching. It was the uncle.''

The coach, though, said his student still has much to learn.

''In every facet of the game he can be better,'' he said. ''And, boy, he works, and masters more of his game. Then and only then we can win several of these. He doesn't work just to win matches, but to be the best, to be No. 1.''



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