PARIS -- The Rafael Nadal Era is set to begin in the men's final of the French Open. Nadal has taken the tennis world by storm this spring and on Sunday will try to confirm his domination against fellow lefty Mariano Puerta and capture the biggest clay-court tournament in the world.
Nadal's heavy favorite status in the final is easily warranted. The fleet-footed No. 4 seed loves the big occasions and he arrives in the his first Slam championship having won three straight tournament titles, racking up 23 consecutive match wins en route, including an impressive four-set birthday triumph over No. 1 Roger Federer on Friday. At just 19, Nadal is wise beyond his years and ready to join elite company in the history books.
With a title, Nadal would join only Mats Wilander (1982) among those able to win on the demanding red clay of Roland Garros in their debut. He would also earn his 24th straight match victory, which would be the longest such win streak by a teen in the Open era. If that's not enough, a victory would give Nadal the lead in the season-long ATP Champions Race.
For Puerta, a classic clay-courter who had never before advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam, it's a chance of a lifetime. A 26-year-old from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Puerta has made a remarkable return to the sport after a serving a nine-month drug suspension, which kept him out of the French Open last year. After beginning the year playing Challengers, Puerta's play has steadily improved.
Like Nadal, Puerta's game revolves around a monstrous lefty forehand. Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end. But the underdog Puerta needs only to look to last year for hope when his unseeded countryman Gaston Gaudio unexpectedly reached the final and then overcame a two-set deficit to stun Guillermo Coria to win the Musketeers Cup.
Nadal and Puerta have played twice before on the ATP circuit with the Spaniard winning both in easy fashion, most recently this February in Acapulco. Puerta did defeat a then-16-year-old Nadal in three sets in a Challenger event in Aix-en-Provence two years ago in three sets.
The match will be the second all-lefty final at Roland Garros. In the 1946 all-lefty final, Marcel Bernard beat Jaroslav Drobny.
In other action: Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain and Paola Suarez of Argentina take on Cara Black of Zimbabwe and Liezel Huber of South Africa in the women's doubles final before the men's final on center court.
Stat du Jour: Nadal is trying to become the first player since Andre Agassi at the 1995 Australian Open to win a Grand Slam title in his event debut (never played juniors).