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Sunday, June 5, 2005
Nadal makes historic debut

By Cynthia Faulkner
ESPN.com

PARIS – Rafael Nadal placed the Musketeers Cup, appropriately enough, on his head like a crown after defeating Mariano Puerta 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 to win the French Open title Sunday.

On match point, Nadal hit yet another of his monster forehands that Puerta tried to send up the line to make Nadal run but it went wide.

Nadal fell to the clay. Then, never one to stay still for long on a court, he jumped up to shake the hand of Spain's King Juan Carlos before climbing into the stands to hug his family.

"These moments are moments when everything comes upon you," Nadal said. "All the work you've been doing during all those years, the sacrifices. When you reach your goal, it's an extraordinary moment. For the first time I cried after winning a match. It never happened to me before."

After all the buildup of Nadal's semifinal match versus Roger Federer, the final was just as entertaining. Puerta played his way into the hearts of fans by refusing to give up. For example, at 5-2 in the second set, Nadal hit an inside-out forehand return from the doubles alley that Puerta sent cross-court, only to see Nadal send the ball sailing up the line. Puerta dived for it. Set point saved.

There were more moments like it, but unfortunately for Puerta, Nadal kept chasing down balls that should have been winners.

"I had to play very close to the lines in order to destabilize him because if I missed, he could lob me," Puerta said through a translator. "If I was standing too far back, then he could pass me or drop-shot me. So it was difficult to control my game."

There is also the fact that Nadal just refused to stop running. If he fell, he rolled through it and bounced up, just in case there still might be a shot to make.

Nadal plays left-handed on the court but eats and writes with his right. On the court, he's a warrior but off the court he's a boy at heart. Eager to be counted among the greats on the court, away from it he downplays comparisons while still behaving as something of a ham in news conferences.

Struggling this week to answer questions in English, Nadal explained how he avoided a fifth set without his translator.

"He send me the drop shot," Nadal said. "I arrive very, very, very – I arrive a little bit late, but I can arrive. And the volley for him is here and I stay a little, and I stay in the middle, he touch, I can return the ball and I can win the point, no?" he said, raising both hands into the V for victory sign, eliciting laughter from reporters.

He rather naively thinks winning his first major title will not change him.

"It's just an extra match," Nadal said. "I'm always a 19-year-old boy who likes to do what he likes and nothing more. The rest is nothing. I will continue to be the same way I was before. I'm going to do the same: I will work day after day like I did my whole life and I'm not going to change anything just because I won this tournament."

And perhaps winning will not change his core personality. But it certainly will change his life.

A year ago, sitting at home with a stress fracture instead of playing the tournament, Nadal never imagined success of such magnitude.

"I am home like this, with the foot, with my injury," said Nadal, putting his leg up on the desk. "So I never think this year this is the good year."

Try an exceptional year. Throughout the clay-court season, Nadal lost only two matches. His last loss was 24 matches ago, a streak just behind Roger Federer's 25 that ended in April. Nadal leads the ATP with a 48-6 record. Nadal has won six titles this season, matching Federer. On Monday, Nadal will rise to No. 3 in the world rankings.

"I think we are talking about someone who is going to write a page in the history of tennis," Puerta said. "He already wrote that page in the history of tennis. Personally, I think he's going to do beautiful things in tennis, like Chang did in his own time, or Agassi. He's going to become a legend of tennis."

Nadal already has required the addition of several notations to Grand Slam history.

• Nadal is the first teenager to win a major title since Pete Sampras won the French in 1990.

• Nadal is the first teenager to win five titles in a season since Andre Agassi won six in 1988 at age 18.

• Nadal advanced to his first major final in only his sixth appearance in a major, joining the select company of Mats Wilander, Gustavo Kuerten, Michael Chang and Bjorn Borg.

• Nadal became the first man to win Roland Garros in his debut since Wilander in 1982. Agassi was the last men's player to win a major in his debut when he won the Australian Open in 1995.

"What surprised me most today is the strength he showed, specifically in passing shots," Puerta said. "There were several passing shots in the tiebreaker in the first set, and he also hit passing shots when I had a set point, and it could have gone to a fifth set. He impressed me a lot then.

"The strength he has in his legs, the way he explodes when he steps into the court to hit a passing shot. He obliges you to volley, and you have to pass him twice. Also, he's very calm. He's cool. I think he has the mental strength to beat records."

"When I have problems in the match," Nadal said. "I fight, I fight, I fight every, every game."

The United States Davis Cup team saw that mental toughness in a critical turning point in Nadal's career in December. In front of the largest crowd to ever watch a tennis match, Nadal clinched the final for Spain. The Bryan Brothers, who were runners-up in doubles at Roland Garros this year, played doubles for the Americans in that final.

"That really turned around his career. Winning that match was a huge boost," Mike Bryan said.

They looked at the draw and thought Andy Roddick and the team lucked out. Nadal quickly changed their minds.

"We thought this guy is just zoning – just playing out of his mind," Bob Bryan said. "He wasn't even playing half as good then as he is now. He's just become a monster with his confidence."

Nadal also is someone to watch out for at the net, so the brothers were talking about how he might perform at Wimbledon.

"There's 10 guys who can beat him on a grass court," Bob Bryan said, "but if he gets a decent draw he can go deep."

Nadal reached the third round at Wimbledon in his debut there in 2003, the youngest to do so since a 16-year-old Boris Becker in 1984. Nadal missed last year with the same stress fracture that kept him out of that French Open.

After winning the French Open, it's uncommon for someone to adjust quickly enough to grass to challenge for the title at Wimbledon. Nadal doesn't expect that he can, but that doesn't mean he doesn't plan to try.

"I read statements that he made yesterday that he wants to win Wimbledon someday," Puerta said. "I believe that if it's his objective, he will make it. I think it doesn't matter how much he will have to work. Even if it's difficult, even if it's playing on grass, he will try; he will commit himself."

Nadal plans to travel to Halle, Germany, on Monday and said he might play another tune-up the following week, doubles as well as singles.

"My goal is to improve day after day on all surfaces," Nadal said. "I hope that I will have a good result in Wimbledon. After that, I will keep on working to improve all the parts of my game."

Nadal's already acknowledged that he'll be expected to perform on other surfaces. His French Open title automatically means he'll likely play on carpet at the Master's Cup. He intends to be ready for that new challenge on the court, although if his performances of the past two weeks are any indication, you'll never see any nerves.

"I always feel the pressure," Nadal said. "I think everybody feels the pressure. All the big champions felt the pressure. hose from yesterday and those from today. What you have to do is control it."