PARIS (AP) – Rafael Nadal celebrated his 19th birthday with the match of his young life.

The precocious Spaniard won a showdown Friday against top-ranked Roger Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to reach the final in his first French Open.

Nadal avenged a loss to Federer at Key Biscayne two months ago and extended his winning streak to 23 matches, all on clay. Nadal became the youngest men’s finalist at Roland Garros since Michael Chang, the 1989 champion at age 17.

“I’m very happy,” Nadal said in his rapidly improving English. “I am in the final. For me, that is very important. It’s a dream for me. I won today against the No. 1.”

With light fading in the final set, Nadal swept the last five games and stopped Federer short in his bid for his first French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam.

“I started bad and finished bad,” Federer said. “I was good in the middle, but that was not good enough.”

Nadal’s opponent Sunday will be unseeded Mariano Puerta, who advanced to his first Grand Slam final by winning the last four games and overtaking a weary Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

“I’m in paradise,” said Puerta, a nine-year pro. “I’m the happiest man on earth right now.”

Puerta and Nadal will play the first all-lefty men’s final at Roland Garros in the Open era. Nadal will try to become the first man since Mats Wilander in 1982 to win the French Open in his debut.

Justine Henin-Hardenne bids for her fourth Grand Slam championship when she plays France’s Mary Pierce in the women’s final today.

Playing with his characteristic creativity and charisma, Nadal raced to an early lead against Federer and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the final set. His heavy topspin and ability to chase down shots made Federer indecisive and forced him into uncustomary unforced errors, including three when the Swiss lost serve for 3-all in the final set.

One last misfire by Federer, a forehand long to end an 18-shot rally, gave Nadal the victory. The teen sensation collapsed to his back and rose covered with the clay he loves. He then trotted to net, where he and Federer embraced.

He beat darkness as well as Federer. Because the first semifinal lasted five sets following an 88-minute rain delay, it was 6:29 p.m. when the second match started and 9:16 p.m. when it ended.

Trailing 4-3 in the final set, Federer remained so confident that he asked the chair umpire whether the fifth set would be started in the twilight or postponed until Saturday. Instead he hit groundstokes wide on the last two points of the next game to lose serve for the ninth time, and Nadal calmly served out the victory.

Federer lost for only the third time in 49 matches this year. The center court crowd cheered as he left, and Nadal joined the applause.

Puerta, an Argentine left-hander who has climbed to 37th in the rankings from 440th last August, struggled with his serve but kept Davydenko on the run throughout their 3-hour, 29-minute match.

By the fourth set the Russian was occasionally bending over between points, hands on his knees, and he was unable to hold a 4-2 lead in the final set.

Playing in his first major event since serving a nine-month drug suspension, Puerta gives Roland Garros an unseeded men’s finalist for the third year in a row. Unseeded Argentine compatriot Gaston Gaudio won the title last year.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.