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FRENCH OPEN

Nadal Has the Dirt on Federer in Paris

Spaniard celebrates his 19th birthday by beating the world's No. 1 player to reach first Grand Slam final.

June 04, 2005|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Rafael Nadal, the freshly minted 19-year-old from Spain, arrived in the interview room at the French Open sporting uncooperative wet hair, the stray locks almost harder to control than his forehand.

"Hola," he said.

Say hello to the Nadal era.

It's a cliche to say an athlete came of age in a particular match, but, well, Nadal did turn 19 Friday, the day he reached his first Grand Slam final. And the fourth-seeded Nadal took out the No. 1 player, beating Roger Federer of Switzerland, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, in the semifinals, reducing Federer to a flustered player in search of a forehand.

Federer's usually trustworthy shot seemed almost to vanish from his arsenal. Somehow, it was fitting that the match ended when a Federer forehand floated long about 9:15 in the Paris evening.

Nadal dropped on his back and appeared close to doing a backward somersault, then settled for a clay caking to celebrate his 23-match winning streak.

Federer was gracious in defeat, even stepping back to let Nadal shake the chair umpire's hand first.

The Spanish teenager was equally classy. He applauded when Federer left the court and had earlier earned the admiration of the crowd, conceding that one of Federer's shots had been good after it had been called out, causing the point to be replayed.

Federer's forehand was not all that wasn't working. He lost his serve nine times, a career high.

"Simple version for me is, um, started bad and finished bad, basically," said Federer, who had trouble dealing with Nadal's lefty spin. "Was good in the middle and that was not good enough."

Said Nadal: "It's incredible to beat Federer. Winning a semifinal is already incredible and beating Federer is even more amazing. I said to him, 'I'm sorry for you.' He said, 'No, no, you played very well.' He said, 'Good luck for the final. Good luck for the future.' "

Nadal has another match in his immediate future, a fact nearly lost amid the hoopla of the marquee semifinal. Awaiting him in the final is another left-hander, unseeded Mariano Puerta of Argentina, who survived a marathon. Puerta defeated No. 12 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, in 3 hours 29 minutes.

"I can't believe this," said Puerta, who rallied from a 2-4 deficit in the fifth set. "This moment is just -- it's amazing."

This will be the first men's final between left-handers at the French Open since 1946. And Nadal will be trying to become the first player to win the French Open in his main-draw debut since Mats Wilander of Sweden in 1982.

It's practically seemed like destiny for Nadal. He has dropped only two sets in six matches. Federer had to summon his best tennis to win one, and Nadal made him sweat it out.

Nadal's sense of drama was impeccable. He hit a superb passing shot down the line on the first point of the match, messaging Federer that nerves would not be a factor.

Then there was a swinging forehand volley winner on set point in the third, which he celebrated by leaping into the air. The heavy lifting, though, had been done earlier, when Nadal stayed alive by digging out a shot on his backhand side and tossing up a high defensive lob.

With darkness fast approaching, the match seemed destined to go five sets and carry over to today. Federer got an early service break in the fourth and led, 3-1. But Nadal kept scrapping and broke back in the sixth game when Federer netted a forehand.

It was clear that Federer had been pushed out of his comfort zone again, and Nadal won the final five games.

Not often does the No. 1 player look desperate but Federer had a brief chat with the chair umpire on the final changeover. Later he was asked if he had made an appeal to stop the match.

"I could hardly see the ball in the end," Federer said. "I'm disappointed we continued. I don't want to say it was a coin toss [whether to continue].

"I played poorly to finish off the match.... I wish we could have continued [today]. But I guess it's too late now."

Nadal would have been fine coming back today. But he took matters into his own hands and applied the pressure. His poise was impressive in the final game as he held at 15, hitting two forehand winners and also putting away a difficult smash to set up match point.

"I'm 18," Nadal said. "There's a lot I still need to improve." He was reminded that was no longer the case. "Sorry, 19, I'm not 18," Nadal said.

And for reinforcement, tournament officials wheeled in a birthday cake and a special guest, Spanish countryman Pau Gasol of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.

Could this be the start of a trend? On this day, it was easy to think Nadal would be eating victory birthday cake many more times at Roland Garros.

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