When teen sensation Rafael Nadal won an 18-shot rally to complete his most impressive victory yet, he collapsed on his back at the French Open and stood covered in the clay he loves. Then he trotted to the net to shake hands with top-ranked Roger Federer.
"I said, `I'm sorry for you,'" Nadal said. "He said, `No, no, you played very well.' ... It's not easy when one player is the No. 1 and lost in the semifinal of a Grand Slam at Roland Garros when he never won here. And he's unbelievable, no?"
Unbelievable, perhaps, but not unbeatable. Federer lost to Nadal 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals of the French Open on Friday. The result altered the balance of power atop the men's game, with Federer's reign no longer quite so secure, and advanced Nadal to the final on Sunday against unseeded Mariano Puerta.
Playing on his 19th birthday, Nadal avenged a loss to Federer at Key Biscayne two months ago and extended his winning streak to 23 matches, all on clay. The Spaniard became the youngest men's finalist at Roland Garros since Michael Chang, the 1989 champion at age 17.
"My best present for today is this match, no?" Nadal said in his rapidly improving English.
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 would say the disappointment is in control," Federer said. "I'm not going to destroy the locker room and never play tennis again. I feel like the motivation's big to come back the next few years and to do better. I still have more left in me in the French Open."
Nadal and Puerta, who beat Russian Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, will play in their first major final. It will be 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.
"It will be a very difficult match," said Nadal, seeded fourth. "I'll have to play my best tennis, and only like that will I be able to win."
The Spaniard played with his characteristic creativity and charisma against Federer, racing to an early lead and overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the final set. His heavy topspin from the left side and ability to chase down shots made Federer indecisive and forced him into uncustomary unforced errors -- 62 in all.
Federer frequently misfired with a forehand widely touted as the game's best.
"You start thinking about whether you're going to go to the net," Federer said. "This has to do with his game. If you go to the net, you're going to get a shot with a lot of topspin."
Nadal beat darkness as well as Federer. Because the first semifinal lasted five sets following an 88-minute rain delay, it was 6:29pm when the second match started and 9:16pm when it ended.
"I could hardly see the ball in the end," Federer said. "I'm disappointed we continued."
Preparing to serve at 3-4 in the final set, he asked the chair umpire whether the fifth set would be started in the twilight or postponed until Saturday. But there was no fifth set.
Instead, Federer hit ground-stokes wide on the last two points of the next game to lose serve for the ninth time. Nadal calmly served out the victory.
"I'm not so happy with my performance, to be honest," Federer said.