Nadal resists Puerta to win first Slam title in clay classic

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Nobody told Mariano Puerta that Rafael Nadal's semi-final match against Roger Federer was, to all intents, supposed to be the French Open final.

Nobody told Mariano Puerta that Rafael Nadal's semi-final match against Roger Federer was, to all intents, supposed to be the French Open final.

The unseeded 26-year-old from Argentina made a mockery of that yesterday, bringing the best out of the 19-year-old Nadal, who needed every ounce of skill and energy to win the title at his first attempt. He took the match 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 in three hours and 24 minutes.

Before receiving the trophy from the French football icon Zinedine Zidane, of Real Madrid, his favourite team, Nadal had his customary roll in the clay before shaking hands with his Spanish monarch and then clambering into the presidential box to embrace his family. This delighted group included Nadal's uncle Toni, his coach, and his uncle Miguel Angel, formerly the Barcelona centre-back.

"It was an unbelievable match," Nadal said. "I played with my best head and my best tennis. Puerta was playing unbelievably. Sometimes I thought I was going to lose, then I thought I was going to win."

Puerta, who was suspended for nine months after testing positive for clenbuterol in October 2003, redeemed himself with his outstanding contribution to a contest filled with brutal drives, feathery drop shots and fleet of foot on both sides.

Puerta's resilience was acknowledged after his five-set wins in his previous two matches, against Guillermo Canas and Nikolai Davydenko. Yesterday his game came alive from the moment he took an injury time-out to have his right thigh strapped at 1-3, 15-40 in the opening set. Far from hobbling, Puerto held his serve and worked his way to the tie-break, a duel that became on of the highlights of the championships.

The Argentinian edged the shoot-out 8-6 after imaginative shot-making by both players. Puerto blinked when an improvised Nadal backhand landed on the baseline, but on the second set point the Spaniard's backhand lob arced long.

Nadal, whose serve was often a weakness in the first set, did not allow Puerta to build on his lead. He broke for 3-1, after Puerta had saved three break points, and stayed ahead.

Puerta, however, drew the biggest roar from the crowd, playing three terrific shots from set point down when serving at 2-5, 30-40 - an ace off a second serve; a backhand drop-shot and a diving forehand winner.

The third set was the shortest at 29 minutes. Puerta served double-faults to lose the first and seventh games, and missed two break points at 1-2.

Broken in the opening game of the fourth set, Nadal broke back immediately. After saving three break points at 3-3, however, Nadal was unable to keep his opponent at bay in the ninth game. He hit a backhand long to 30-40, and Puerta surprised everyone again, this time by punching home a backhand volley.

That left Puerta to serve out the set at 5-4. He created three set points, only for Nadal to salvage them all. Not even another dive for a shot could change his fortunes, and even King Juan Carlos sprang to his feet and cheered when Nadal turned Puerta's body-shot into a reflex volley winner. After holding for 6-5, Nadal broke to win the tournament in 12th game, a forehand down the line taking him to match point. Puerta then missed a backhand.

"It was a beautiful match," Puerta said. "When I went out of the court, I knew I had lost to the best player in the world on clay."

Mary Pierce said she was not nervous in Saturday's embarrassingly one-sided women's singles final, in which the French player was beaten by Justine Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, 6-1, 6-1, after 62 minutes. Pierce's performance did not help the WTA Tour's campaign for equal prize-money with the men.