- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

PARIS — Rafael Nadal’s first Grand Slam final will be remembered for the magnificent tiebreaker he lost, the set points he saved and the title he won.

In a match filled with spectacular exchanges at dramatic moments, Spanish sensation Nadal beat an unseeded but unyielding Mariano Puerta 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 to win the French Open.

With yesterday’s victory, the young king of clay earned a congratulatory handshake from the king of Spain.

“This is incredible,” said Nadal, who turned 19 Friday. “It’s a dream come true.”

The No.4-seeded Nadal overcame three set points in the final set and became the youngest men’s Grand Slam champion since Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989 at age 17. Nadal’s the first man to win the French Open on his initial try since Mats Wilander, who claimed the first of his seven Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros in 1982.

“I fight every ball,” Nadal said. “When I have problems in the match, I fight, I fight, I fight every game.”

For sheer entertainment, the final surprisingly surpassed Nadal’s semifinal win on his birthday against top-ranked Roger Federer.

The match inspired the best kind of clay-court creativity, keeping both players on the run as they chased drop shots, lobs and sharply angled groundstrokes. Some of the best rallies came in the tiebreaker, with each point seemingly more spectacular than the last.

Puerta, hampered by a sore thigh and weary from consecutive 3-hour five-setters in the previous two rounds, kept battling Nadal even after losing the second and third sets.

“He brought out the best in me,” Puerta said. “I lost to an excellent player. He’s the best player in the world.”

The Argentine’s efforts to force a fifth set won over the center-court crowd, who repeatedly chanted his name, and drew applause even from Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni Nadal.

“Mariano played better tennis than Rafa,” Toni Nadal said. “But Rafa had the luck when he needed it.”

Puerta was one point from winning the fourth set serving at 5-4, 40-15. But in another series of thrilling exchanges, Nadal rallied to break serve for 5-all. Two games later, after 3 hours, 24 minutes of tennis, he closed out the victory when Puerta pushed a forehand wide.

Nadal collapsed to the clay, flat on his back, then rose and embraced Puerta at the net. The young Spaniard then trotted to the other end of the court to shake hands with King Juan Carlos of Spain, seated in the front row.

“These moments are very strong,” Nadal said. “It’s something you can’t explain. When you reach your goal, it’s an extraordinary moment. For the first time, I cried after winning a match. It never happened to me before.”

With his 24th consecutive victory, Nadal surpassed Andre Agassi for the longest winning streak by a male teenager in the Open era. All of the victories have come on clay.

“I didn’t think he was going to arrive this early in his career,” said Wilander, who covered the match as a TV commentator. “But mentally he’s just so tough.”

Nadal celebrated shots by flexing his Popeye-caliber biceps, and with leaps, uppercuts, and other muscular moves worthy of Olympic judo champion David Douillet of France, who was among the spectators.

But while the charismatic teen delighted fans, so did the journeyman Puerta. He won one point with a flying forehand volley and another when he faked a drop shot to send Nadal into a skid, then hit a deep forehand winner instead.

It was the first all-lefty men’s final at Roland Garros since 1946, and Nadal become the first left-handed men’s champion since Thomas Muster in 1995.

Nadal received $1,082,400 for his sixth tournament title this year, all on clay. Puerta, who arrived in Paris with a career Grand Slam record of 8-15 and a tainted reputation after serving a nine-month drug suspension, won admirers with his grinding style and received $541,200.

On a cool, gray afternoon, Nadal broke in the opening game and led 3-1 when Puerta called for a trainer in the middle of the next game.

Puerta had lost consecutive points to fall behind 40-15, then went to his changeover chair for treatment. He grimaced as the trainer massaged his right thigh, then taped it.

With that, Puerta rallied. He won the game, then broke serve for 3-all. Both players held to the tiebreaker, and Nadal led 3-2 when the two players began a sequence of six consecutive spectacular points.

Each involved scrambling rallies with plenty of improvisation and improbable saves. When Nadal sent a backhand winner down the line for a 5-4 lead, he dropped his racket so he could celebrate with both hands, then pounded his chest with his fist.

At 5-all, the Spaniard went into a shoulder roll in the clay trying to scoop out a shot in the corner. He lost the point, and two points later his lob landed just wide, giving Puerta the set after 72 minutes.

Nadal was 1-for-8 on break-point chances before he converted for a 3-1 lead in the second set. He broke three more times in the third set while easily holding serve, but there was more drama to come.

Puerta’s last gasp came serving at 5-4 in the final set. On one set point, he lunged to his right to dig out a volley, then leaped to his left in a vain attempt to return another, dumping the ball in the net as he landed in the clay.

The last point of the game produced another frantic exchange. Nadal charged forward to scoop up a drop shot, and when Puerta sent a forehand back toward him from point-blank range, the Spaniard hit a reflex volley for a winner.

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