ThrowbackTimes Miami: Rafael Nadal, 17, stuns world no. 1 Roger Federer

Rafael Nadal made giant steps towards the place in the top-100 in 2003, starting the next season ranked inside the top-50, still at 17! The Mallorca native was a perfect mixture of incredible physical strength at such a young age, absolute determination, talent and commitment to improving in every match, reaching the first ATP final in Auckland at the beginning of 2004. Rafa lost to Dominic Hrbaty 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, but that motivated him to work even harder, scoring some notable wins at the Australian Open, Milan, Dubai, and Indian Wells, almost always as by far the youngest player in the draw. Nadal defeated the former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic in the Miami second round to meet the newly-crowned world no. 1 Roger Federer for the first time on March 28. At 17 years, nine months and 25 days, Nadal scored a sensational 6-3, 6-3 triumph in swift 70 minutes to become the youngest player since the beginning of the ATP Tour in 1990 with a win over world no. 1.

Despite the young Spaniard’s evident talent and iron will, no one could have seen this coming, not against the player who conquered the Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells and lost just one match since the start of the year! A week before, Roger claimed the Indian Wells title and had only a couple of days to recover physically and get ready for Miami, feeling signs of illness and fever and never looking good on the court. The Swiss barely survived a challenge from Nikolay Davydenko in the previous round and had nothing left in the tank for a teenager, bowing out in straight sets and sending the opponent into the last 16. We should not take anything from Nadal’s triumph, though, as he certainly made an impressive one, playing with no sign of nerves and doing just about everything right on the court, from choosing the right tactics to throwing everything on Roger.

In 2004, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in straight sets in Miami.

Rafa did massive damage with his topspin forehands that bounced high and took time off from Federer’s shots, keeping the opponent out of the comfort zone and drawing many errors. The Spaniard’s defense was already one of the best in the game, building a fortress around the baseline that was almost impossible to penetrate, even for such a fine attacker like Roger. He didn’t lean only on that, though, attacking whenever he could and playing some well-constructed points at the net, mixing the shots nicely to keep the rallies on his racquet and never allowing Federer to step in and take charge with his forehand. Nadal struggled with his backhand, although that couldn’t hurt him much since Roger played below his level, experiencing an unexpected loss and setting eyes on the clay swing. Nadal’s serve gave him a considerable advantage in the first encounter against Roger, never facing a break point or deuce in his games and creating a room to play more aggressively on the return.

Also, Rafa served at 81% and won 31 out of 39 points after landing the first serve in, producing impressive numbers for a player whose initial shot wasn’t a prime weapon in his arsenal. Nadal’s second serve worked like a charm too (had to play just nine points on the weaker serve, though), losing 12 points in nine service games overall, something he could have only dreamed about before the start of the match. On the other hand, Roger couldn’t follow those numbers behind his initial shot, dropping almost 40% of the points and playing against seven break chances, getting broken three times which was more than enough for Nadal to bring the clash home. Federer had 16 service winners, and Rafa returned the other serves with no troubles, gaining an instant advantage in the rallies and sending the balls back to Roger’s backhand, especially in the second set.

Nadal finished the encounter with nine service winners and a 14-11 advantage in the winners from the field, hitting with more variety than his rival, who had only two winners outside his forehand. The Swiss sprayed 17 unforced errors, 12 from his more substantial wing, while Nadal stayed on 14, mainly thanks to his backhand. The Spaniard forged the most significant difference in the forced errors segment, hitting just three from his backhand while Roger counted to 16, in another excellent illustration of who was the more aggressive player and who had the upper hand in the rallies. Federer had a slight edge in the shortest points up to four strokes (31-27) thanks to those service winners. Still, everything else was on Nadal’s side, as he demolished the opponent in the mid-range rallies from five to eight shots (20-7) and clinched 11 of the longest 16 points to make his sensational victory clean as a whistle. 

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