Final destination is just the start for Nadal

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The Independent Online

In the joyous, clamorous aftermath of Friday night's sensational French Open semi-final, they wheeled in a cake to the interview room for Rafael Nadal to enjoy a brief celebration of his 19th birthday. The cutting ceremony was performed by Nadal's friend, the Spanish basketball ace Pau Gasol of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol promised he would be back for this afternoon's final. So will Nadal.

In the joyous, clamorous aftermath of Friday night's sensational French Open semi-final, they wheeled in a cake to the interview room for Rafael Nadal to enjoy a brief celebration of his 19th birthday. The cutting ceremony was performed by Nadal's friend, the Spanish basketball ace Pau Gasol of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol promised he would be back for this afternoon's final. So will Nadal.

The teenager's battalions of well-wishers will be hoping he can go one step further, though not necessarily higher, than the 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3 crushing of the world No 1, Roger Federer. The deepening gloom on Court Central which enveloped and finally smothered the Swiss could not have been more appropriate as Nadal somehow managed to create light and space with his nerveless, fearless tennis.

So the fairy story of this Roland Garros debutant requires no more than a fairytale finish. The muscled youngster who has surged to fifth in the world rankings on a tidal wave of 23 straight clay court wins needs to make it 24 by overcoming the unseeded Argentinian, Mariano Puerta.

After what Nadal has accomplished, no big deal surely. But Puerta has his own fairy story, though of a seedier and scarier nature, having returned to the Tour last year after a nine-month drugs ban which occurred not long after he had managed to escape in Buenos Aires from a malfunctioning lift which then crashed.

After all that, just to be playing the men's final of a Grand Slam may be enough cause for Puerta to celebrate. It may well need to be enough, since Nadal is on the sort of irresistible roll which may not stop short of hurtling through a brick wall.

There is a French word, rafale, not dissimilar to Nadal's first name. It means two things: a huge, swirling wind, and a quick-firing gun. Both are entirely appropriate to the Mallorcan wonder. Opening the year ranked just outside the top 50, he has won five titles, including two, Monte Carlo and Rome, in the Masters Series. Nothing seems to faze him, nobody seems capable of halting him.

Whatever the result today, and hardly anyone is expecting Puerta to be holding aloft the Coupe des Mousquetaires, Nadal will be off to the German grass of Halle tomorrow to begin preparations for his assault on Wimbledon. The lad never stops.

Federer looked as if he would have been happy to see the back of Nadal's lime-green sleeveless shirt long before slumping to a defeat precipitated, in part, by his own poor play, particularly on a malfunctioning forehand. He must also be scouring the ATP players' guide to see which player's birthday falls on the date of the Wimbledon final, since he lost to the eventual winner of the Australian Open, Marat Safin, on the Russian's 25th birthday, and to Nadal on his 19th. It is not pleasant twice finding yourself a birthday present.

Federer, of course, remains a strong favourite to retain the Wimbledon title for a third consecutive year, but his confidence was clearly dented by the damage Nadal inflicted. Afterwards, while claiming he could beat Nadal on any surface, the Swiss readily conceded: "This is good to know, because he is going to be a threat. He deserved his victory, he was the better player."

This is the second time in three meetings Nadal proved the better player and Federer warned: "I believe he's going to be good on grass, too. No question. The guys who make it to the top five, they can play on any surface. It's how tennis works." At the net, Nadal revealed his youthful inexperience by apologising for victory. "No, no, you played very well," Federer sportingly responded. "Good luck for the final, good luck for the future." But, he did not need to add, not too much good luck.

How did the pressure feel? Nadal was asked. "What pressure?" After all, he had won a crucial singles in Spain's Davis Cup final destruction of the US less than six months previously. Every day, and in every subsequent match, Nadal has handled pressure as if were an old friend. But he remains on a learning curve. "I'm 18, there is a lot I still need to improve." Then, realising he had perpetrated an unforced error, he corrected, "Sorry, 19, I'm not 18 any more."

Puerta must pray for a few on-court errors in this first all-left-handers' French final in 59 years to block Nadal's ambition of becoming the first since Mats Wilander in 1982 to win here on his debut.

Never having been further than the third round of a Grand Slam previously, Puerta has trodden a rough path since testing positive for clenbuterol in 2003. But he will be offering thanks for one statistic. If the two-year ban had not been cut to nine months he would have been watching this final on television and anticipating a return in September.

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