Nadal Emulates Wilander By Lifting Title On First Attempt
by James Buddell|
Wearing cut-off piratical trousers and a sleeveless shirt, Nadal won the title at his first attempt by defeating unseeded Argentinean Mariano Puerta 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 in front of a capacity crowd on Philippe Chatrier Court. Having started the year outside the Top 50, Nadal will rank World No. 3 on Monday after completing his 24th straight win on clay.
"I played with my best head and my best tennis,” said Nadal, who after being congratulated by the King of Spain, climbed up into the stands to embrace his family. “He played unbelievably and there were times when I thought I might lose."
Puerta, largely unheralded before the tournament, put up a fantastic fight and was three times within a point of taking the match into a fifth set but Nadal – combining youthful exuberance, thrilling shot-making and tactical nous – did not disappoint his growing legion of fans.
Fourth seed Nadal became the second man to win the Roland Garros title on debut since Sweden's Mats Wilander in 1982 and the first teenager in the men's game to win a major since Pete Sampras won the US Open in 1990, also at 19.
Spaniards have now won the title on six occasions since 1993 and four times in the last six years. "It was my dream to win a Grand Slam title, but especially Roland Garros, because that's the tournament that all Spanish want to win," Nadal said.
Nadal was up 3-1 and had a 15-40 lead on the Puerta serve in the first set when his Argentine opponent walked slowly to his chair and had strapping applied to his right thigh. It proved too much for the teenaged Mallorcan, who could not convert his two break point opportunities and saw Puerta hold for 3-3. Striking many of his shots with enormous venom, Puerta battled valiantly in a wonderful opening to take the tie-break 8-6.
For the first time in the tournament Nadal was a set down. But the Spaniard turned adversity to his advantage, switching between attacking and breathtaking defensive in an instant, and broke Puerta in the fourth game of the second set. Puerta, 26, who contested five-set matches in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, began to fade as Nadal totally dominated the third set.
Puerta broke Nadal at the start of the fourth set, immediately dropped his own serve but broke again to serve for the set at 5-4. Nadal responded with a thrilling net rally that had the King of Spain, in the front row of the Presidential Box, on his feet.
Nadal celebrated his 19th birthday on Friday by beating World No. 1 Roger Federer in the semi-finals. He had arrived in Paris as a winner of two Masters Series titles in Monte-Carlo and Rome, and as the pre-championship favourite despite never having competed at Roland Garros before.
"Without my family, I never can [have] won here," said Nadal, who started playing tennis with his Uncle Toni aged four. His life, like Bjorn Borg's, Wilander's, 1989 titlist Michael Chang's and all of tennis's other teenaged champions, will never be the same.