Can the Nadal juggernaut be stopped?

PARIS: Rafael Nadal's furious charge towards his first Grand Slam title will reach a successful conclusion on Sunday if he beats Argentine Mariano Puerta in the French Open final.

The powerful Spanish left-hander pummelled world number one Roger Federer on his 19th birthday on Friday and will start as clear favourite to lift the trophy in his first attempt.

If Nadal overcomes the unseeded Puerta he will become the first debutant champion at Roland Garros since Swede Mats Wilander in 1982. Two years of injury misery prevented Nadal from making his debut at Roland Garros.

Three consecutive clay court titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome marked Nadal as the pre-tournament favourite.

Oozing confidence

Far from being a weight on his broad shoulders, however, the Mallorcan has revelled in the spotlight, dropping only two sets on the way to the final.

After beating Federer he oozed confidence, realising this is where he belonged.

``I don't think I'll be especially nervous on the day of the final,'' Nadal told reporters. ``True, I've never been in a final of a Grand Slam, but I've played lots of finals this year.

``Then the Davis Cup final last year, you can't get any more pressure than that.

``Puerta will be difficult, he's been playing very good tennis to get in the final. It will be a very complicated match and I'll have to play my best tennis if I am to win.''

Puerta, also a left-hander, will prove a tough adversary for Nadal.

The 26-year-old Argentine, who 10 months ago was ranked 440th in the world after completing a nine-month ban for failing a drugs test, comes from the mould of classical south American clay court specialists.

Like Nadal, he has a huge topspin forehand. Similarly Puerta competes for every point as if his life depends on it.

Whatever the outcome, Nadal will know he has been in a scrap.

``With Nadal it will be a big battle, we're both left-handers, we both have the same sort of strokes,'' said Puerta, who names 1977 champion Guillermo Vilas as his inspiration.

``We're both going to arrive at the final with huge self confidence, it's going to be a good match to play.''

Puerta will be hoping to emulate last year's champion Gaston Gaudio, who also came through unseeded to lift the title. — Agencies

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