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Nadal neutralizes No. 1

Fourth-seeded Rafael Nadal falls to the clay after Friday's semifinal win over No. 1 Roger Federer. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Fourth-seeded Rafael Nadal falls to the clay after Friday's semifinal win over No. 1 Roger Federer. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press

PARIS — 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. The Spaniard became the youngest men’s finalist at Roland Garros since Michael Chang, the 1989 champion at age 17.

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.

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.

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 improved to 37-2 this year on the surface.

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