Paris: Rafael Nadal was crowned the undisputed king of clay on Sunday after beating unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 in a rousing French Open final.
The 19-year-old Spaniard hit back from losing a lung-busting opening set, rattled through the next two and then held off a brave Puerta fight-back to claim his first Grand Slam title.
In doing so he also became the first debutant since Swede Mats Wilander in 1982 to win the men’s singles at Roland Garros and the youngest Grand Slam winner since Michael Chang here in 1989.
Puerta played inspired tennis early on and looked capable of emulating countryman Gaston Gaudio’s triumph here 12 months ago.
But Nadal, who beat world No. 1 Roger Federer in the semi-finals, would not be denied.
Soaking up everything Puerta could muster, he eventually ground the gallant Argentine into the dust, saving three set points in a gripping fourth set before Puerta sent a forehand wide on his first match point after three hours 24 minutes.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a dream come true. Mariano played amazing tennis during the two weeks and again today,” said Nadal who was congratulated by the watching King Juan Carlos of Spain.
“It’s always been my dream to win a Grand Slam, and Roland Garros in particular. All Spanish players dream of that.”
All the talk going into the final was of Nadal, winner of five titles and 23 consecutive matches, claiming his place in history against a player who this time last year was still serving a nine-month ban for doping.
The stubborn Puerta obviously had not been listening.
The first professional era men’s final at Roland Garros featuring two lefthanders had threatened to fizzle out after the 26-year-old Argentine made a torrid start.
Trailing 1-3 and 40-15 on his serve things looked bleak for the Argentine and the Centre Court crowd’s hopes of a worthy climax to the tournament.
After lengthy treatment on a thigh injury which required a heavy strapping, the Argentine returned with a new sense of purpose.
Mixing clever angles with subtle drop shots, he took the fight to his opponent, holding serve to trail only 2-3. He then immediately broke Nadal to level up the set.
In the tiebreak Nadal bludgeoned a backhand down the line to lead 5-4 but Puerta responded with two dynamic points to reach set point and send Nadal crashing to the floor.
The Spaniard saved the first one but when Puerta’s second set point came at 7-6, he forced Nadal to hit a defensive lob wide after 72 minutes.
The effort of winning the first set appeared to have taken its toll on Puerta in the second.
A weary-looking backhand drifted over the baseline to hand Nadal a break for 3-1 and this time there was no coming back as the tenacious Nadal levelled the match at one set apiece. As the skies darkened over Roland Garros the momentum swung completely in Nadal’s favour at the start of the third set.
He muscled his way to an early break and Puerta’s resistance began to crumble as Nadal pounded away from the baseline.
Nothing the Argentine tried worked and Nadal broke for a 4-1 lead and then repeated the trick two games later to put himself in sight of his first Grand Slam title.
However Puerta, a survivor of five-set battles in both his quarter final and semi-final, found a new lease of life in the fourth set and he put the brakes on Nadal’s victory charge. At 3-3 he had Nadal down 0-40 on serve but the bullish Spaniard dug himself out of trouble, holding serve with a dipping crosscourt backhand.
Hitting the ball with renewed power and venturing boldly to the net Puerta engineered another break opportunity at 4-4 and this time he jabbed away a backhand volley to give himself the chance to take the match into a decider.
The drama reached new levels in the next game as Nadal saved three set points, the second after a dazzling exchange at the net which ended with Puerta diving full length across the clay.
Earlier, Spain’s Virginia Ruano Pascual and Argentine Paola Suarez confirmed their status as the world’s No. 1 women’s pair by winning their fourth French Open doubles title. The top seeds, playing their sixth consecutive final at Roland Garros, beat second seeds Cara Black of Zimbabwe and Liezel Huber of South Africa 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.