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Nadal tops Puerta in four sets to win crown


PARIS - There were red clay stains, the result of a third-set tumble, up the side of his mid-calf pirate pants, another blotch of crimson on the back of his green muscle shirt from the cliche winner's pratfall, the broadest of smiles on his face and, eventually, a few tears running down his cheeks.

On a gray Sunday that was all rainbows for Rafael Nadal, the precocious 19-year-old with the spectacular defensive skills and thumping forehand accomplished what everyone but he expected.

He won the French Open, beating unseeded, unheralded and, outside his native Argentina, virtually unknown Mariano Puerta, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5, in a spectacular men's final.

It had everything - smoking ground strokes, great drop shots, fabulous defensive plays, reflex volleys, diving volleys, saved set points, interminably long rallies and, best of all, 15,000 roaring fans on the Philippe Chatrier stadium court.

With this triumph yesterday, Nadal becomes the first teenager to claim a Grand Slam men's title since Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open in 1990 and youngest Grand Slam men's champion since Michael Chang won in Paris at 17 in 1989.

Nadal did it with his 24th consecutive victory, all on clay.

Because of injuries the previous two years, this was Nadal's French Open debut. Only Mats Wilander in 1982 has also won this tournament on his first try.

"When I started playing the Futures, the satellites, I was losing in the [qualifiers]," Nadal recalled. "Now, this year, I'm among the top 10 in the beginning of the year and No. 3 in June."

Puerta, whose past 42 matches were all on clay, was given little chance to win this final, but, at 26, there were no nerves.

Nadal spent almost the entire opening set on defense as Puerta dictated the pace with the bigger shots from the baseline. It was as impeccable a display of ground stroking as one could reasonably expect against a player of Nadal's ability.

And in the tiebreak, Puerta caught Nadal at 5-5 with a half-volley winner, then put the set away with another display of dictation, eventually forcing Nadal to hit a forehand wide.

Nadal easily won the second and third sets.

But in the fourth, Puerta mounted his final siege, first forcing Nadal to come back from love-40 to hold a 4-3 lead, then busted him in the ninth game and had three set points. He failed to convert all three.

"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."

NOTE: Top-seeded Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain and Paola Suarez of Argentina won their fourth French Open women's doubles title by beating Cara Black of Zimbabwe and Liezel Huber of South Africa 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

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

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