PARIS -- When you're going for a career Grand Slam, Roland Garros is the most difficult major to win. No. 1 Roger Federer found that out Friday as Rafael Nadal got his birthday wish.
Nadal, who turned 19 on Friday, said before the match he needed Federer to have a bad day. Federer complied. Seeking to become the sixth man with a complete collection of Slam victories, Federer struggled with a spotty serve and a rebellious forehand, usually his best shot. Nadal won 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to advance to the French Open final in his debut appearance.
Of the five men who have completed a career Grand Slam, three of them -- Fred Perry, Don Budge and Andre Agassi -- won the French Open last. In the 36 years since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam (no career attached to those), only Agassi has won all four majors.
After rain delayed the first semifinal -- where left-handed Mariano Puerta advanced with a 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory against Nikolay Davydenko -- Nadal and Federer took the court with stormy skies overhead and daylight fading.
After not dropping a set to get to the semifinals, Federer lost the first point and then the first set to Nadal, while getting in only 59 percent of his first serves and winning only 43 percent of the points on his second serve. Federer seemed to find his serve again in the second set, making 93 percent of his first serves to take a 5-2 lead. Nadal won two more games, but Federer took the set with his serve percentage dipping only to 84 percent.
"For a while I had, it was my feeling, I had a great first-serve percentage," Federer said. "That definitely dropped. My forehand was working well, and then suddenly didn't work that well."
"He is playing very well in the second set," Nadal said. "When he plays very well, I can't do nothing, no? He has unbelievable forehand. And when his forehand goes to my backhand, is very difficult for me."
Federer tried to take advantage of that weak backhand but with his serve failing him, he simply could not take control.
In the third set at 3-2 deuce, Nadal showed he was not intimidated. He went sliding for a cross-court backhand and, instead of missing, came up with the winner. With the advantage, after a wide forehand return, he raced to the other side of the court to meet the ball and smashed it to take a 4-2 lead. Federer broke Nadal, and they were back on serve at 4-3.
"I had to stick it out for the first games of the third set," Nadal said. "I could see that things were turning around in my favor. That made me feel calm. I could see I was going to be able to break."
That he did at 5-4 with quite a bit of help from Federer, who served five faults in three points. Nadal hit a lucky net cord to get the advantage. Federer sent Nadal scrambling to hit a defensive lob and Federer smashed it, only to have Nadal scramble again and return it. They went back to rallying and Nadal set up an amazing forehand return behind Federer to win the third set.
Federer had been behind two sets and down 4-1 to Nadal in Miami earlier this year. He came back to win that match.
"At sort of Love-15 down in the last game, yeah, you think, 'Yeah, let's do it like in Miami,'" said Federer, who has lost only three matches this year. "But you don't just pull a rabbit out of the hat, do you? It's sort of tough to do, you know, especially against him. He's so solid, you know."
So, the man who so often appears to be a magician left the court with the sun already set in Paris.
Uh, about that …
"I could hardly see the ball in the end, you know," Federer said, when asked about the visibility. "I am disappointed we continued. I don't want to say it was a coin toss or anything in the end, you know. I played poorly to finish off the match. You know, he was just consistent and solid."
"The light [was] not the best," Nadal agreed. "So I think we will try finish the set, and if he won the set, go to sleep, no? Play tomorrow."
Instead, Federer sent one last ball long. Nadal threw himself to the ground spread-eagled, joyfully picked up a tennis ball with a soccer maneuver and threw it into the crowd before going to the net to offer his apologies for winning.
"I said, 'I'm sorry for you,'" Nadal said. "He said, 'No, no, you played very well.' He said, 'Good luck for the final. Good luck for the future.'"
Mats Wilander, in 1983, is the last man to win the French Open in his debut appearance. But Nadal mostly focused on this victory.
"Is a dream for me," Nadal said. "I won today against the No. 1 – not only the No. 1 for the tennis, but the No. 1 for the person and for his sportivity [sic]."
He meant sportsmanship, of course. Federer took an award for it, in fact. Nadal gamely trotted out his English for the journalists the past two weeks. An impishness comes through in expansive facial expressions whether he's speaking in English or Spanish. The local crowd responded to that personality, unless he was playing a Frenchman. As his success grows, he's liable to draw even more admirers.
It seems likely that there will be more success. Nadal now owns the most wins on the tour this year with 47, but Federer cautioned that there are plenty of other players formerly referred to as the next best thing still out there.
"This was definitely a big match of my career and of this year," Federer said. "But the other guys [in the top five] are for me, in my eyes, as good as Rafael."
For now, it's Nadal's turn to celebrate. After his press conference, countryman Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies showed up with a celebratory drink of orange juice and sparklers blazing on a cake. With it being so late, it was about the only celebration Nadal expected to see.
"My present is my family is here," he said. "They arrive yesterday.
"And for me, my best present for today is this match," he said.
As for Federer, he has little time to put this loss behind him before moving on to the short grass-court season.
"My disappointment, it's obvious. … But I don't know, the disappointment is still in -- I would say it's in control," Federer said. "I'm not going to destroy the locker room and never play tennis again, you know. I'm not at that point.
"So I feel like the motivation's big, you know, to come back the next few years and to do better, you know. So I still got more left in me at the French Open," Federer said.
"It's not easy when one player is the No. 1 lost in one semifinal of Grand Slam of Roland Garros when he never won here," Nadal said. "And he's unbelievable."
That Federer has proved, even with one trophy missing from his collection.