A teenager brought his country's king to his feet Sunday at Roland Garros.
It happened in the fourth set of a thrilling French Open final, as Juan Carlos I of Spain, looking on from a courtside seat, cast off any regal inhibition and jumped to his feet alongside awestruck tennis fans to reward the heroics of Rafael Nadal, who had just defied all notions of speed and human reflexes in fending off a critical set point, with a standing ovation.
But the most glowing tribute came later, from the man Nadal defeated, Argentine Mariano Puerta, 26, who played the match of his life before giving way to the phenomenal Spaniard, 6-7 (8-6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5.
"I think we are talking about someone who is going to write a page in the history of tennis," Puerta said of Nadal, who, at 19, became the first to win the grueling French Open in his debut since Sweden's Mats Wilander in 1982. "Personally, I think he's going to do beautiful things in tennis -- like [Michael] Chang did in his own time, or [Andre] Agassi. He's going to become a legend of tennis."
With his first Grand Slam victory, Nadal extended his clay-court record this season to 38-2, vaulted to No. 3 in the world (behind Switzerland's Roger Federer and American Andy Roddick) and collected $1.075 million in prize money. And he responded by falling flat on his back on the dusty, red clay of Philippe-Chatrier Court, then clambering into the stands to bury himself in the embrace of his mother, father and uncle Toni, who has devoted his life to coaching his iron-willed nephew.
Later, gazing at the silver Musketeers Cup that is awarded the French Open victor, Nadal saw not only the reflection of the same teenager he was before the match but also a tennis player who had earned the right to be mentioned alongside the greats he had watched on TV as a child. And for the first time after winning a match, he buried his face in a towel and wept.
"To be on the same list as they are is a dream," Nadal said through an interpreter. "It's something you can't explain. These moments are moments when everything comes upon you. All the work you've been doing during all these years, the sacrifices. When you reach your goals, it's an extraordinary moment."
Nadal had emerged as the game's next sensation well before Sunday's match, collecting five clay-court titles leading up to the French Open. And he embellished that reputation throughout the Paris fortnight, toppling the peerless Federer in four sets in their much-hyped semifinal Friday.
Sunday's championship, many predicted, was bound to be a letdown. Surely the unseeded Puerta, the tournament's unlikely finalist, would be spent after playing back-to-back five-set matches to reach his first Grand Slam final. And quite likely Nadal's excellence would ebb, as well, after his huge victory over Federer.
But to the delight of the capacity crowd, Sunday's men's final was clay-court tennis at its best.
Puerta proved more than a worthy opponent and endeared himself to fans by pushing Nadal to his limits despite having to call for a trainer after straining his right thigh 24 minutes into the match. Puerta played aggressive and clever tennis, hammering groundstrokes with unrelenting pace, charging the net 55 times and mixing in drop shots to turn what was expected to be a walkover into a gripping battle.
Nadal came out swinging, breaking Puerta's serve in the opening game and bolting to a 3-1 lead, but soon found himself in a dogfight for the set. It took a tiebreaker to settle it, and Puerta prevailed, 8-6. Just 5 feet 10 and 165 pounds, Puerta poured every ounce of himself into his shots, as if acknowledging that if this were to be his only Grand Slam final, he would paint the court with his heart and soul.
Nadal bounced back to even the match at one set each. Puerta tried wearing down the youngster with sharply angled groundstrokes, drop shots and lobs, but Nadal sprinted after them all, cruising through the third set in just 26 minutes.
The fourth set was a match of it own -- lasting as long as Saturday's women's final (62 minutes) and packed with shot-making that was 1,000-fold better. Puerta and Nadal exacted the best from each other, diving onto the clay for one impossible save after another.
Puerta had three chances to break Nadal's serve in the seventh game, but the Spaniard clawed his way out of trouble to pull ahead, 4-3. That put Nadal within two games of the title.
Sensing a premature end to the spectacular match, the crowd erupted, with fans of all nationalities joining flag-waving Argentines in cheering Puerta along. Horns blared and cheers of "Ole!" rang out, transforming Center Court into a bullring that demanded more.
Puerta was reborn by the display. He held serve easily, broke Nadal to take a 5-4 lead and found himself serving for the fourth set. The longed-for fifth set seemed inevitable as Puerta bolted to a 40-15 lead, but Nadal roared back.
He ran down a drop shot to fend off the first set point. He staved off another when Puerta's drop shot caught the tape.
Then came the point of the match: a deftly executed drop shot that Nadal chased down, followed by a lightning fast exchange at the net that Nadal won on sheer grit and reflex. Nadal celebrated by skipping back to the baseline, clicking his heels in the air and pumping his fist as he yelled, "Vamos!"
Puerta was stunned.
"When I went off the court, I knew I had lost to the best player in the world on clay," Puerta said afterward. "What could I do?"
Note: Tickets for the U.S. Open, to be held Aug. 29-Sept. 11, go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. Monday is also the deadline for entries in the Legg Mason Wild Card Challenge, which offers the tournament's singles champion a wild-card entry into the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, July 30-Aug. 7, at Washington's William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.