Nadal Conquers Paris
Spanish teenage sensation Rafael Nadal won his first grand slam title at Roland Garros Sunday by defeating unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta in four sets, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1 and 7-5. On this day, a new tennis star was born. While Nadal had already handled world number one Roger Federer in four two days earlier on his 19th birthday, the mark of a great player is when they win a major. Now that Nadal has won the French Open, the future looks bright for the charasmatic, musclebound lefty to win more majors on other surfaces.
Though it is true that the clay courts are his best surface, with a booming forehand and blinding speed, able to rundown any shot and make improbable winners from ridiculous angles, this guy looks like he could be a force. Nadal also possesses a will to win. He never gives away points. This was evidenced by how he fought off three set points against Puerta that would have leveled the championship match and sent it to a fifth set. But Nadal broke to make it five all and then held serve. He would then get to championship point at 6-5 on Puerta's serve. When the Argentine misfired a forehand wide into the double's alley, Nadal raised his fist and fell to the ground in jubilation.
The victory for the Spaniard was his 24th consecutive overall- the most by a male teenager breaking an Open record set by Andre Agassi. Coincidentally, Agassi once was a teenage sensation who made a surprising run to the French semifinals before losing to eventual champ Mats Wilander 17 years prior. Since that point, Agassi has gone on to win eight slam titles, including a triumph at Paris in '99 to complete a career grand slam.
The victory made Nadal the youngest man to win the French Open title since American Michael Chang, who won it in '89 as a 17-year-old.
He also became the first male to win it on his initial try since Wilander back in 1982.
Overall, he ripped 54 winners and made just 28 unforced errors. A remarkable ratio for the new champion.
Puerta, who was a year removed from a drug suspension that dropped his ranking to 440th, was just 8-16 at majors before this event, made the match entertaining. By taking a competitive first set tiebreak, he proved to be a worthy opponent. Though the 26-year-old dropped the next two sets, he went down swinging in the fourth and made Nadal earn it.
"Unfortunately, Nadal didn't let me play the fifth set,'' Puerta said. "I could still be playing now, in fact. But it was a beautiful match all the same.''
Nadal gave Puerta his due afterwards. "He was hitting me where it hurt,'' he said. "He made me move a lot and run a lot. I think this is the match where I ran the most in the whole tournament.''
After coming in ranked 37th, Puerta will leave Paris ranked a career best 12th overall. As he noted, this should be beneficial. "I believe that in a certain way I was resuscitated,'' said Puerta. "Now I'm going to be able to face excellent players. I will walk onto the court with a different state of mind.''
What's left from how well Nadal played is how mature he is. He plays a very physical brand of tennis and imposes his will out on the court. Can this grinding style work on the grass courts at Wimbledon?
"I know (grass) is not my best surface,'' Nadal noted. "Is a little bit fast. I need to improve some things in my game (to) play better in grass and in the fast courts.''
One area which could be a problem is that he doesn't possess a big serve. That could be a factor in how well he fares at the All England Club in a few weeks.
One thing is certain. Nadal is here to stay and that is good for tennis. It gets a winning personality who enjoys himself out there. Two-time defending Wimbledon champion Federer is already on notice. Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick beware.