In an all-lefty men's final, Nadal hopes to get it right


PARIS - Jose Higueras' forecast two days before the start of the French Open is as fresh today as the moment he said it.

Rafael Nadal might get nervous, said the great former Spanish clay-courter, but only in the first round or two.

If he makes it to the semifinals and final, there will be no nerves, said Higueras, who lives and coaches in the United States. His will is too strong, his mentality too steely.

Indeed, there have been no nerves for the precocious left-hander whose flash and personality are exactly what the French fans love. This is a country that has embraced Yannick Noah and John McEnroe.

It was only natural they would idolize Nadal, who will meet Argentine Mariano Puerta today in the first all-lefty men's final at Roland Garros since 1946.

Nerves in his heavily advertised match against No. 1 Roger Federer on Friday, which Nadal won in four sets? On the opening point, the Spaniard slashed a running forehand down the line on a Federer approach shot that wasn't merely hit, but smoked.

He broke in the first game. He broke Federer four times in the first set and nine times in the match after Federer had lost serve only eight times in five previous matches.

When Federer finally found his forehand and serve in the second set, there was no more obvious time for Nadal, 19, to lose his composure. He didn't.

Federer had gone up 5-1 in the second after winning his serve at love and, in the process, delivering the most delicate of backhand drop shots from his baseline for a clean winner.

But the mental strength that Higueras spoke of was still there and, two games later, Nadal broke Federer for 5-3, angering the Swiss superstar.

Nadal's very significant victory over Federer seems to have established three things:

Federer is not going to be Pete Sampras, spending years trying to master clay enough to come close to or win the French Open. He very clearly has the game to win the French.

Nadal not only is the best clay-court player, but he has the game to win on hard courts.

Nadal has an enormous upside that has yet to be tapped.

Federer took this loss well, saying he was proud to have shown himself he can go deep into the French Open draw after winning only two matches here in the previous three years.

Nadal will play a grass court tune-up to Wimbledon and is looking forward to London. But there's really only one thing on his mind today, and that's his first Grand Slam crown.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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