Rafael Nadal was still 17 when the 2004 season kicked off, reaching his first ATP final and battling hard at the Australian Open. Following his first Davis Cup victory and the third round in Indian Wells, Rafa was hungry for more in Miami. The youngster defeated a former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic in the second round and set a meeting with the newly-crowned world no. 1 Roger Federer on March 28, in what would be the opening chapter in one of our sport’s biggest rivalries. At 17 years, nine months and 25 days, Nadal scored a sensational 6-3, 6-3 triumph in swift 70 minutes, becoming the youngest player with a win over world no. 1 player since the ATP Tour’s formation in 1990. Despite the evident talent and iron will of the young Spaniard, no one could have predicted this outcome, not against the player who conquered the Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells and lost just one match that season!
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 against Rafa. The Swiss barely survived a challenge from Nikolay Davydenko in the previous round and had nothing left in the tank for the young Spaniard, bowing out in straight sets and sending a teenager into the last 16. We should not take anything from Nadal’s triumph, though, as he delivered an impressive victory after playing with no signs of nerves, doing just about everything right on the court. 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 among 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.
Rafael Nadal defeated world no. 1 Roger Federer in Miami 2004 in style.
He didn’t lean only on that, though, attacking whenever he could and playing some well-constructed points at the net to mix the shots nicely and keep the rallies on his racquet, never allowing Federer to step in and take charge. Nadal’s serve gave him a considerable advantage in the first encounter against the Swiss, never facing a break point or deuce in his games and creating room to play more aggressively on the return. 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 in the early days. 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, which was 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, playing against seven break chances and suffering three breaks to propel Rafa over the finish line without a proper fight. Federer had 16 service winners, and Rafa returning 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 slim edge in the shortest points up to four strokes (31-27) thanks to those service winners. Still, everything else was on Nadal’s side, demolished the opponent in the mid-range rallies from five to eight shots (20-7) and clinching 11 of the longest 16 points to earn one of the most impressive victories before becoming a Major contender a year later.
“I’m thrilled because I played one of the best matches of my life. Roger didn’t play his best tennis, and that’s the reason why I could win. I mean, if he had played his best tennis, I would have had no chance. But that’s what happens in tennis. If a player like me delivers an excellent level and a top player like Roger doesn’t, I can win. I played almost perfect tennis today, stepping inside the court and dominating the exchanges to get him out of the comfort zone. I also served exceptionally well, probably like never in my life; that was the key too,” Rafael Nadal said.