Teen prodigy Nadal wins French Open

Associated Press

Paris, June 5:

Spanish teenager Rafael Nadal lost a tiebreaker filled with marvelous exchanges, faced three set points in the fourth set and still beat unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 to win the French Open on Sunday for his first Grand Slam title. Two days after celebrating his 19th birthday by defeating top-ranked Roger Federer, Nadal overcame a gallant effort from Puerta. The young Spaniard, seeded fourth, became 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. The opening set 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 1/2-hour five-setters in the previous two rounds, kept battling even after losing the second and third sets.

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

The Argentine 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 the king of Spain sitting in the first row. 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.

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, seated in the second row. But while the charismatic teen delighted fans, so did the journeyman Puerta. He won one point with a flying forehand volley, a la Boris Becker, 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. He’s the youngest men’s winner since Michael Chang, the champ in 1989 at age 17.