Argentina's Mariano Puerta loses French Final but wins fans
Rafael Nadal is a Spanish sensation and teen idol, winning raves from royalty and comparisons to such past Grand Slam champions as Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg.
On Sunday, journeyman Mariano Puerta was almost as good.
The unseeded Argentine, less than a year removed from a drug suspension that dropped his ranking to 440th, lost to Nadal 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 in the French Open final. But Puerta made the most of his biggest moment on a Grand Slam stage, playing with a verve and resilience to rival Nadal's.
By the fourth set, Roland Garros fans were chanting "Puer-ta!, Puer-ta!."
"I had goose bumps when I heard people yelling my name," he said. "For the crowd, I would have liked to go into a fifth set."
Puerta held three set points serving at 5-4 in the fourth set, but Nadal rallied with a series of spectacular winners and closed out the victory for his first Grand Slam title. That earned the Mallorcan a handshake and praise from the king of Spain.
"Unfortunately, Nadal didn't let me play the fifth set," Puerta said. "I could still be playing now, in fact. But it was a beautiful match all the same."
That it was, with plenty of clay-court improvisation and improbable saves by both players. Puerta held his own against a youngster touted as the game's next great player.
"He was hitting me where it hurt," Nadal said. "He made me move a lot and run a lot. I think this is the match where I ran the most in the whole tournament."
Puerta did plenty of running throughout the fortnight. Each of his final three matches went 3 1/2 hours, but despite a sore thigh that required treatment during the first set, he showed no sign of fading at the end.
Despite the disappointment of defeat, the 26-year-old Puerta drew consolation from a Grand Slam showing that was by far the best of his career. He had never advanced beyond the third round in 15 previous major events.
The Argentine choked back tears during the trophy ceremony.
"I don't want to be bitter," he said later. "I enjoyed myself a lot playing this final. I gave my best, all I had on each point, and I lost against the best player in the world on clay. Therefore, I have to be objective. I must be happy."
Four of the top 11 players in the men's rankings are from Argentina, including Gaston Gaudio, the 2004 French Open champion, and Guillermo Coria, last year's runner-up. But it was their compatriot Puerta who survived to the final day.
"I'm very pleased," Puerta said. "Well, not as much as I could be. I'm very proud, though."
The Grand Slam event was the first for Puerta since he served a nine-month suspension that began in October 2003 after testing positive for clenbuterol, a drug whose effects resemble those of anabolic steroids by promoting muscle growth. An investigative panel determined that a doctor prescribed the banned drug to Puerta to treat an acute asthma attack.
He came into the French ranked 37th and will climb to about 12th, a career best, when the new ATP Tour rankings are released Monday.
"I believe that in a certain way I was resuscitated," Puerta said. "Now I'm going to be able to face excellent players. I will walk onto the court with a different state of mind."