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Puerta in paradise with final date

PARIS, France -- Mariano Puerta of Argentina reached his first Grand Slam final on Friday hitting back to defeat gritty Russian Nikolay Davydenko 6-3 5-7 2-6 6-4 6-4 at the French Open.

"I can't really believe this, that I'm in the final of a grand slam," Puerta, who found himself in the tennis wilderness after being banned for nine months in 2003 for doping, said.

Puerta will face Spanish fourth seed Rafael Nadal who defeated top seed Roger Federer 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3.

"I've sacrificed a lot and overcome many obstacles. This is even more incredible when you think what has happened to me," added the Argentine.

Puerta had failed to get past the third round of any Grand Slam event in his career, but a drastic weight-loss programme had left him fitter than ever this year and he devoted himself to the claycourt season.

"I feel like I am in paradise," he said after finishing off the rain-delayed tie in three hours 30 minutes.

It was one of those unexpected semifinals that the French Open has a habit of throwing up.

Ticket holders on Centre Court were eagerly awaiting the second semifinal between world number one Roger Federer and Spanish whizzkid Rafael Nadal but they had to sit patiently as Puerta and Davydenko became embroiled in a war of attrition.

The left-handed Puerta muscled his way through the first set after a 90-minute rain delay and looked capable of overpowering the slender Davydenko.

However the Russian, who beat last year's runner-up Guillermo Coria, also from Argentina, in the fourth round, found his range in the windy conditions to seize the initiative.

Puerta found himself on the defensive as Davydenko came up with some punishing angles off both wings and the Russian moved into a two sets to one lead.

The 26-year-old Argentine found a new lease of life in the fourth set, pouncing for a break in the seventh game to set up a decider.

With both players slugging relentlessly from the back court it was Puerta who wobbled first, sending a tired-looking forehand over the baseline to trail 4-2.

The Argentine refused to flinch, however, summoning all is reserves of energy to surge through the next four games as Davydenko's resistance finally crumbled.

Puerta's crunched an unplayable forehand down the line to end the contest after three hours 29 minutes.

"Even when I was 4-2 down in the fifth set I still believed that I could win," said Puerta. "I felt like I was playing in Buenos Aires today, there was a lot of support.

"That gave me a lot of strength."

It is the third year running that an unseeded player has reached the men's final at Roland Garros, following on from last year's champion Gaston Gaudio and Dutchman Martin Verkerk, who was beaten in the 2003 final.

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