Paris: Mariano Puerta of Argentina reached his first Grand Slam final Friday hitting back to defeat gritty Russian Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the French Open semi-finals.
At midnight, Rafael Nadal was leading world No. 1 Roger Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in the second semi-final.
The other semi-final being played later opposes the two favourites, top seed Roger Federer of Switzerland and fourth seeded Rafael Nadal of Spain.
Puerta’s centre court triumph over Davydenko was reward for battling back from two years in the wilderness following a nine-month drugs ban that he claimed was unjust.
He had failed to get past the third round of any Grand Slam event in his career, but a drastic weight-loss programme had left him fitter than ever this year and he devoted himself to the claycourt season.
“I feel like I am in paradise,” he said after finishing off the 3hrs 30mins tie.
“I trained so hard for this and put so much in to win this match. It was like being back in Buenos Aires with all my supporters in the crowd.”
It was one of those unexpected semi-finals that the French Open has a habit of throwing up.
The big names in the bottom half of the draw, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Marat Safin and Guillermo Coria were all sent packing early on as the special demands of claycourt tennis took their toll.
Left standing were two of the sports’ journeymen ' Puerta a once promising youngster who fell foul of drugs and injuries and Davydenko, a frail-looking slogger who dislikes playing when it is too hot.
But the 24-year-old Russian had nothing to worry about for the biggest match of his tennis career as blustery thunderstorms delayed the start of the tie for 1hr 40mins.
When it did finally get underway the 26-year-old Puerta took immediate command, his wristy groundstrokes forcing Davydenko onto the backfoot.
They exchanged service breaks in the fifth and sixth games, but Puerta broke again two games later with a finely-judged forehand, crosscourt passing shot.
He then served out to take a one set lead, converting on his third set point.
Both players had come through gruelling five-set marathons in their respective quarter finals and in the second set they settled back into that kind of grinding groove that is the mark of claycourt tennis.
Games went with serve, but it was Puerta who was having the harder time of it holding serve and he finally cracked while just one game away from a tie-break.
The Argentinian saved a first set point when Davydenko netted an easy forehand, but in the blustery conditions, Puerta floated a backhand long on the second break point against him to level the scores.
That appeared to briefly take the wind out of Puerta’s sails and he quickly fell 0-3 down in the third.
Davydenko looked the fresher taking all the initiatives as Puerta appeared to have run out of ideas.
The Russian wrapped up the set 6-2, but Puerta broke first in the third game of the fourth set, only for Davydenko to break back in the next game.