Coria's craft will test progress of Nadal's talent

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The Independent Online

The ATP Masters Series has evolved into a heady mix of masters and graduating apprentices, as we shall witness again today in the Monte Carlo final.

The ATP Masters Series has evolved into a heady mix of masters and graduating apprentices, as we shall witness again today in the Monte Carlo final when the 18-year-old Rafael Nadal challenges Guillermo Coria, the defending champion, It will be Nadal's second Masters Series final in a fortnight, the powerful left-hander from Majorca having lost to Roger Federer in five sets at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Key Biscayne after leading the world No 1 by two sets to love and coming within two points of the title.

Yesterday Nadal defeated another 18-year-old, Richard Gasquet, a French qualifier, 6-7 6-4 6-3. Gasquet, ranked No 101, became the talk of tennis after saving three match points in defeating Federer in Friday's quarter-finals, 6-7 6-2 7-6.

Gasquet converted his third match point to become only the second player - after Marat Safin at the Australian Open - to beat Federer this year, and ended the Wimbledon champion's winning run of 25 matches.

The mental and physical effort of that victory took a toll yesterday in Gasquet's third three-set match in as many days. He had treatment to his lower back towards the end of the second set, and was cramping for much of the final set.

Nadal, who is only 15 days older than Gasquet, had a more economical route to the semi-finals, conceding a mere 14 games in his previous four matches. He is the youngest Monte Carlo finalist since Mats Wilander, who was 18 years and seven months when he won the title in 1983. "I'm happy to be in another final and to improve my ranking," said Nadal, who will advance from 17th to 12th in the world. "Richard played an incredible match to beat Federer and played another great match today. Is this the start of a rivalry? I don't know. There are so many great players out there."

Gasquet's backhand flowed in the early part of the contest, when Nadal tended to be profligate, being broken twice when serving for the first set, at 5-4 and 6-5. Both players were prone to errors in the tie-break, Gasquet steadying himself to convert his second set point on a return of a second serve for 8-6 after 57 minutes.

Although Gasquet broke to love in the opening game of the second set and held for 2-0, Nadal took the next five games, at which point Gasquet first called for the trainer. Serving at 2-5, Gasquet held to love and then broke back to 4-5, raising home hopes. But Nadal attacked Gasquet's serve in the 10th game and converted his third set point.

Though evidently weary in the final set, Gasquet had chances to break in the fifth and seventh games before plopping a tired forehand volley long to lose his serve for 3-5 and netting a forehand on Nadal's first match point in the next game.

Coria, the sixth seed, defeated Nadal, 7-6 6-2, in their only previous meeting, here in 2003. Yesterday the Argentinian beat Juan Carlos Ferrero, of Spain, 6-2 7-5. Ferrero, the champion here in 2002 and 2003, had to ask for a wild card this time, his ranking having fallen through illness and injury last year. Although Ferrero was outplayed in the opening set, Coria using drop-shots to good effect, the most worrying thing for the Spaniard was his inability to build on a 4-0 second-set lead. Coria won seven of the last eight games.

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