Covered in dirt, running for every shot like his life depended upon it, Rafael Nadal won the French Open on his first visit, defeating Mariano Puerta in four sets of high-intensity tennis. Congratulated by the King of Spain, he clambered into the crowd to hug his family and team overcome with emotion.
The scoreline, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 tells you nothing of the skill on display. Both men hit with such spin and angle that they needed to play shots from almost in the stands. The French crowd bayed for a fifth set, but Puerta, serving to win the fourth, was broken by Nadal’s tireless running.
The final was not supposed to be this good. The real final, according to observers, would be the Federer-Nadal semi-final, with the winner a sure bet for the title. That match, however, failed to live up to its billing, with Federer’s game falling apart as the match went on. The one grand slam missing from the world number one’s collection will have to wait.
Nadal, it should be remembered, is just 19. His talent and maturity is such that he could dominate the French Open for many years. This was no teenage fluke like Michael Chang in 1989. Nadal came into the tournament as favourite after his tour victories in Monte Carlo and Rome, and has looked the part throughout. His match against Sebastian Grosjean of France was marked by such a show of vitriol from the crowd at the umpire after a disputed line call that play was held up for 10 minutes. Nadal kept his cool, cut out the fist pumps to placate the crowd, and won the match. He remained unfazed at facing Federer, the man who looms over the rest of the tour; and in front of the King of Spain raised his game in the final to match the occasion.
Puerta was no bit-part player. He earned his place in the final by beating Guillermo Canas and Nikolay Davydenko in five sets, thereby becoming the third unseeded player in a row to reach the last round. Puerta, like the previous beaten finalist, Guillermo Coria, has served a suspension for using banned substances, but through his performance and demeanour, he will have won a few new friends. He tried everything to beat Nadal, and would have beaten any lesser player. But Nadal time and again ran down every ball, forcing Puerta to hit closer to the lines and venture to the net where he was exposed by the lob and Nadal’s passing shots.
The fourth set was Puerta’s big chance. Having broken Nadal at 4-4, it seemed the momentum had swung to the Argentine. Nadal saved two set points by judicious use of the drop-shot, and once he broke back it was clear his chance had gone.
For Puerta, the final was a form of redemption after his ranking had slipped into the 400s. For Nadal, you sense the title is the first of many grand slams. His game will probably not translate to the grass of Wimbledon, but on every other surface he will scare opponents with his fierce top-spin, creative shotmaking and intensity. A new tennis great has emerged.