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FRENCH OPEN 2 left-handers in tennis title match



Published: Sat, June 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Tenn prodigy Rafael Nadal meets Mariano Puerta today at Roland Garros.

PARIS (AP) -- In French they're "les deux gauchers" -- the two left-handers. At the French Open, one of them will become "le champion."

Teen prodigy Rafael Nadal and Argentine journeyman Mariano Puerta meet today in the first all-lefty men's final at Roland Garros since 1946 and the first in any Grand Slam event since 1998.

At No. 5 in the rankings, Nadal is the top-ranked left-hander and the only one in the top 20, allowing him to hit shots at angles other players seldom see. But that advantage will be neutralized against Puerta, third-highest in the rankings among lefties and 37th overall.

"We both have the same sort of strokes," Puerta said. "It's going to be a good match."

Nadal is a big favorite in the wake of his semifinal victory over top-ranked Roger Federer. The young Spaniard's heavy topspin from the left side had Federer off balance and indecisive about where to attack, and he committed 62 unforced errors.

It was a ragged performance atypical of the stylish Swiss, and he blamed Nadal.

"You've got to understand, you're not going to see the same guy out on the court against a totally different player," Federer said. "The points are played a different way. My kick serve doesn't bounce to his backhand, it bounces to his forehand. So it changes everything. And his lefty spin always takes me a while to figure out."

Left-handed Grand Slam champions were once common. They included Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas.

Natal is strong, fast

Aspiring to join that group is Nadal, who has plenty going for him besides being a lefty. He's strong, fast, creative and thus far unfazed by the Grand Slam stage.

The win over Federer came on Nadal's 19th birthday, but the Mallorcan is no giddy kid, and he quickly noted that there's still one match to play this week.

"I'm very happy, but not euphoric," he said. "I still have my feet firmly on the ground. I know I have [today], if not the most important match of my life, then very close to it."

After the buzz that accompanied the Nadal-Federer showdown, the final may seem anticlimactic -- but not to the unseeded Puerta. At 26, he arrived in Paris with a career Grand Slam record of 8-15 and a tainted reputation after serving a nine-month drug suspension.

But Puerta's dogged baseline game is to be admired, and he survived consecutive 31/2-hour five-setters to reach the final.

"I can't believe that I'm going to play in the final of Roland Garros," the outgoing Puerta said.

"It really is amazing. It's even more incredible because of what has happened to me over the past four years."




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