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Federer Given Spanish Lesson

Mantilla, ranked 47th, conducts clinic in clay-court tennis and beats the fifth-ranked Swiss in straight sets to win Italian Open championship.

May 12, 2003|Bud Collins | Special to The Times

ROME — You could call him Blackbeard the tennis pirate, but in Barcelona he's known as Felix Mantilla.

Mantilla made off with a treasure of his own Sunday, lifting a $400,000 prize from the overwhelming favorite, Swiss millionaire Roger Federer, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (8), in the final of the Italian Open at Il Foro Italico.

The piston-legged Mantilla, chasing balls so far afield that only the very best shots got past him, made a little history as well as a lot of money -- the most he'd ever won -- for his first Masters Series title, a victory he called "the best of my career."

Ranked No. 47 at the start of the tournament, with a 15-10 match record this year, the 28-year-old Mantilla was the longest shot ever to win the 73-year-old championship, and only the third unseeded champion.

A brilliant shotmaker, the No. 5-ranked Federer, the man who ended Pete Sampras' title run at Wimbledon two years ago, was pushing Mantilla all over the red clay court. Federer's only trouble was that the Spaniard kept knocking everything back and saving break points -- 14 of the 17 he faced.

Three times in the first set Mantilla rebounded from 15-40 to hold serve, saving seven break points in that set.

"It gets into your head mentally when you don't win so many break points," Federer said. "It's terrible when a match starts this way.

"He plays very patient. You know it's a little bit boring. It's the same all the time; if you hit a good shot or a bad shot, the ball keeps coming back."

Boring? Maybe, but the baseline grinders from Barcelona aren't bored. That's their shtick. Even though their best retrievers were here -- 2001 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alex Corretja, former French Open champ Carlos Moya, current French champ Albert Costa -- it was Mantilla who made it all the way.

A semifinalist at Roland Garros himself five years ago, Mantilla is back on track after right shoulder problems and surgery.

"I'm very strong physically and mentally. Yesterday helped much," he said, referring to a semifinal win over a revived Yevgeny Kafelnikov, even though the Russian served for the victory at 6-5 in the decisive third set.

Mantilla's strength showed Sunday. Federer led, 2-0, in the second and third sets, had two set points at 5-4, 40-15 on serve in the third, and seven more break points in the monster 11th game. There Mantilla weaved through 10 deuces during a 14-minute screamer to 6-5. He refused to buckle. The 95-degree afternoon was tough, but Mantilla was the heat.

The American men have had better weeks. Seven started the tournament, two won a match, all were gone by the second round. Andre Agassi couldn't even get past a lesser Spaniard, No. 60 David Ferrer, costing Agassi his No. 1 ranking. Andy Roddick and James Black also made quick exits.

The U.S. women should do better this week, with Serena Williams defending her title, accompanied by Jennifer Capriati, Chanda Rubin and ex-champ Monica Seles.

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