La Puerta Del Cielo (The Gate of Paradise)

May 23, 2005, Rafael Nadal, 5th player in the world, enters court n°1 to start the first Roland Garros of his career against Lars Burgsmuller, modestly 95th player in the world. Author of a prodigious clay court tour that enabled him to win the Masters Series in Monte Carlo and Rome at the age of 18, the Mallorcan went from the top 50 to the top 5 in just a few months. He has never played a single match at the French Open but still finds himself propelled to the top of the tournament! "Carlos told me that there was a great atmosphere at Roland Garros and that I was going to love it. [1]," he told Stadium 2, referring to Carlos Moya, who was his training partner of choice before becoming his coach a few years later. Rafael Nadal may have curled his opponent in the first round, but he was not satisfied with his game. "Could I be, when there were so many approximations and hesitations in my game? In any case, after such a match, I can't be said to be one of the favorites of the tournament" [2]. It is always amusing to reread fifteen years later these words, which are already akin to a perfectionism that will make him one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. Rafa leaves that day the court n°1 dissatisfied. That he is reassured, he will no longer have the opportunity to repress him...

Episode 1 - Through the storm

Episode 2 - The Man Through Whom the Scandal Comes

"Nadal buries Federer" is the very evocative title chosen by Eurosport to qualify the bitter defeat of the Swiss in the semi-final, overtaken by the ardor of the young matador [3]. On his 19th birthday, Rafael Nadal gave himself the chance to win the first Grand Slam of his career. On his way to the Grand Slam, he has to face the unexpected Mariano Puerta, 27 years old, who the press sees as a miracle in this Parisian tournament. After a successful clay court tour, Puerta approaches Roland Garros with confidence... despite his non-seeded status. "When we arrived in Paris, Puerta looked at the draw, looked at the potential opponents and told me I like it very much, I see myself in the quarter-finals" [4] recalls Andrés Schneiter, his former coach... Better than a quarter-final, the Buenos Aires native finds himself in a position to win a Grand Slam, he who had never got past the third round in a major tournament, barely a year after his return from a doping suspension, which had sent him tumbling beyond the 400th place in the world. After Gaston Gaudio's coronation the year before, Argentina has again the opportunity to place an auriverde in the firmament of the Parisian tournament. But one thing worries Mariano Puerta on the eve of his final. During his 3.5 hour marathon against Nicolay Davydenko in the semi-finals, the Argentine suffered a 3 millimetre tear in his leg, which could seriously handicap him for the final. After more than 7 hours on the courts since Wednesday, the day of his quarter-final against Guillermo Canas, Mariano Puerta is not approaching this match with the greatest physical freshness, to say the least... It is the 4th meeting between the two finalists of the day who present some similarities, between the physical challenge they impose on their opponents and a left-handed forehand lift terribly effective on this surface. It is the Spaniard who leads 2-0 in the confrontations on the main circuit. But Puerta had won their first duel in 2003 in the final of the challenger in Aix-en-Provence (3-6, 7-6, 6-4). Even though Nadal was only 16 years old, the Argentinean had already had to work hard in 3 sets to win the title !

The final does not start well for Mariano Puerta who loses his opening serve against an already very energetic Mallorcan. But by making a double fault on his first serve, Rafael Nadal calls us, the contemporary spectator. He is a still inexperienced player with a slightly infant look and briefly caught up by the emotion we glimpse for a moment. It is a strange feeling to see in an emerging champion this moment of weakness... which will remain in a state of parenthesis. He is made for fighting. And this game will be one already, because the young Spaniard will have to run to save two debreak balls. After failing to come back to the score, Mariano Puerta accuses the blow. While he has to save two break balls at 3-1, he decides to call the physiotherapist to heal his injured thigh. We have only been playing for 25 minutes and the final could not have started any worse for him... After throwing a cold on the Philippe Chatrier, Puerta and his strapped thigh return to the court to save his serve game. Which he manages to do brilliantly. The spectators don't know it yet but the game has really just started...

Destabilized by the fact that he didn't manage to make this double break, Nadal is debreaked by a conquering Puerta. The two men will then go blow for blow until the tie-break, the climax of this final in terms of intensity and tension. Mariano Puerta's ball spurts like never before on the court. He hits his forehands with such strength and heaviness that Rafael Nadal has to work hard. The Spanish matador first manages to resist the attacks of the Argentinean bull by throwing some furious passes. At 5-4 for him, he misses the opportunity to conclude a roundly led point. Puerta returns a defensive lob that miraculously ends up on the court and goes on the attack, concluding the exchange with a subtle half-volley, showing that he was not just a summary of brutality on the court. This is the turning point of this tie-break. Nadal may have left his skin on the Parisian clay court, but the Argentinian got his first set point. This one is saved from a devastating backhand. But it's only a postponement. Puerta gets a second set point on Nadal's serve. After 72 minutes of play, Puerta gets his backhand to admire his one-handed backhand and wins the first set point! The set was particularly hard for the Argentine who used his set to erase a break and showed incredible power on this set end. The 37th player in the world will pay for his energy in the second set. "Puerta played very well in this very difficult first set, but I knew he was not going to be able to keep up with the pace, Nadal said after the match [5]". The young Spaniard rushed into his opponent's second ball and took the lead from the first shot. As his body language shows, Puerta is blaming the blow. At 2/1 on his serve, Nadal seizes the break opportunity and flies away in this set. By saving a set point on an ace at 153 km/h (!) and keeping his serve at 5/2 on a beautiful dive on the fly, Puerta delays the deadline but will not be able to make up the delay. 1 set all.

Nadal confirms his mental and physical hold on the match in the 3rd set. The Argentinian's one-handed backhand is much less prominent and Nadal takes advantage of this to pound this weak point and open up the court. He breaks on the first serve and saves 2 debreak balls on his serve. At the end of an extraordinary 4th game on both sides, Nadal double breaks and goes wide. At that moment, Puerta seems powerless against the pugnacity and the debauchery of the young Spaniard. "The final was very difficult, but physically I felt incredibly well [6]", he confirms. After the loss of this 3rd set, the people present in the grandstand were not supposed to give much of the Argentinean's skin. But Nadal lost his concentration and lost the first game. He was able to get off his feet but Puerta sent the message that he was still in the game. Reinvigorated, he stands up to the Spaniard and attacks him from all sides of the field. "He hit where it hurts. He moved me around a lot on the field, I really ran a lot, Nadal said after the game. I think it was the most running game of the tournament "[7]. Constantly threatening on his opponent's serve play, Puerta managed to break at 4-4 after a beautifully constructed point. The crowd, dying for the match to go on, exulted. Toni Nadal, surprisingly serene, applauds in the grandstand. "In the fourth set, I had goose bumps when I heard the audience chant my name," [8] the Argentinian recalls. Puerta found himself serving for the set and bought two set balls. But the Majorcan never gives up. Pugnacious, he does everything to attract his opponent to the net. At 40-30, on a forehand attack by the Argentine, he manages to execute a bunt on the backhand side. But Puerta is on top and manages to send it back impeccably. Nadal then makes a superb short cross backhand pass and Puerta responds with a beautiful backhand volley. Nadal manages to adjust his opponent, who throws himself on the volley. Fate has chosen his side. Puerta's ball hits the rail and falls on the wrong side of the net. Nadal leaps and roars in the fervor of the audience. The Argentinian will have done everything perfectly on this point but came up against a player without limits. However, Puerta gets another set point, which he ruins all by himself this time. The inevitable happens: once again sucked into the net, Puerta is trapped. Debreak, 5-5. He has missed his chance. At 6-5 for Rafa, he finds himself with his back to the wall on his serve, with a match point against him. This time it's over. A forehand in the corridor and Rafael Nadal lies down on the floor of the Philippe Chatrier court. After 3h20 of match, he has just won the first of his 13 Roland Garros...

Of this fight, Toni Nadal says he was the "most beautiful and hardest" of all his nephew's coronations. It is above all the inaugural victory of a long domination at Porte d'Auteuil and it bears the flavour of the first times. At a press conference, such a young Rafael Nadal indulges in an authentic emotion, that of a hopeful who won the greatest title of his career at an early age. "I never cry, I shouldn't cry, but this time I did. I'm 19 years old and I'm a child like any other, the same things happen to me as to others, except that I play tennis, I came here and won Roland Garros. I thought I was going to become a professional tennis player, but I never imagined that. It's June and I'm 3rd in the world. Tennis is unpredictable! [9] »

As for Mariano Puerta, he is logically disappointed by his missed opportunities, but what more could he do today? "Nadal won because he is the best player in the world on this surface. I had my chances, I did what I had to do but he had incredible balls (sic). I wanted to play the fifth set but he wouldn't let me. I could still be playing right now (sic). I'm surprised that as he gets older, he faces situations so naturally. We are talking about someone who will be a tennis legend [10]. »

The more years of hindsight will only make him look at this game a little differently: "I'm losing not because of a physical problem, but because he was superior. I have absolutely no regrets about this match, except for not taking him to a 5th set. I'm sure it would have been a very hard-fought match. But I'm not disappointed, in the end, I have great memories of that match [11]. I lost against the best clay court player of all time. His forehand is unbelievable. It has been shown that with him, the ball spins twice as much as any other player; it has twice the effect. "When the Argentinean said these words in 2010, Rafael Nadal had added five more Grand Slams to his roster.

With this final at Roland Garros, Mariano Puerta confirmed, after his setbacks, his return to the forefront. He was going to leave Paris at the gates of the top 10. "I hope that this final will not be the only one I will play at Roland Garros. Who knows if I won't come back next year stronger than ever", the Argentinean dreamed in his post-match speech. But he will never have the opportunity to come back to Roland Garros again. A few months later, L'Equipe revealed that the Roland Garros finalist tested positive on the evening of his defeat against Rafael Nadal, using etilefrine, a cardiac stimulant .

Episode 4 to follow : The Unbelievable Truth

[1] [2] ibid [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] ibid

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