Rafael Nadal: ‘After 16 years, I still remember when I first faced Roger Federer’

In 2004, players born in 1986 and 1987 were still making their first steps on the professional circuit, mixing the junior events with Challengers and occasional excursions on the ATP Tour. Well, almost all of them. Rafael Nadal was a bit different type of competitor, making giant steps towards the place in the top-100 already in 2003 and starting the next season ranked inside the top-50, still at 17! The Mallorca native was a perfect mixture of exceptional physical strength, absolute determination, talent and resolution to improve in every match. In his first ATP final in Auckland 2004, Rafa lost to Dominic Hrbaty 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, which only motivated him to work even harder. The youngster scored 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 a former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic in the second round in Miami to set up a meeting with the newly-crowned world no. 1 Roger Federer on March 28, in what was the opening chapter in one of the biggest rivalries that the world of tennis has ever seen. At 17 years, nine months and 25 days, Nadal scored a sensational 6-3, 6-3 triumph in just 70 minutes to become the youngest player since the beginning of the ATP Tour in 1990 with a victory over the world’s best player. Despite the apparent quality and iron will, no one could have seen this coming, not against the player who won the Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells and lost just one match since the start of the year. A week before, Roger claimed the title in Indian Wells and had only a few days to recover physically and prepare 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 the young Spaniard, bowing out in straight sets and sending a teenager through to the last 16. We should not take anything from Nadal’s triumph, as it certainly was an impressive one, playing with no sign of nerves and 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, as the Swiss never settled into his usual rhythm. 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. He didn’t lean only on that, though, attacking whenever he could and playing some well-constructed points at the net. Nadal struggled with his backhand, although that couldn’t hurt him much since Roger played below his level, experiencing a somewhat unexpected loss.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played for the first time in Miami 2004.

Nadal’s serve gave him a considerable advantage in the first meeting with Roger, never facing a break chance or deuce in his games and creating room to play more aggressively on the return, which he did. Also, Rafa served at 81% and won 31 out of 39 points after landing the first serve in, impressive numbers for a player whose initial shot wasn’t a prime weapon in his arsenal. Nadal’s second serve worked like a charm (he had to play just nine points on 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 serve, dropping almost 40% of the points and playing against seven break points, getting broken three times to propel Nadal over the top.

Federer had 16 service winners, with Rafa returning the other serves with no troubles and gaining the immediate advantage in the rallies, sending the balls back to Roger’s backhand, especially in the second set, and standing strong in the rest of the exchange. Nadal finished the encounter with nine service winners and had 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. At the same time, 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 the edge in the shortest points up to four strokes (31-27) thanks to those service winners, but everything else was on Nadal’s side. Rafa demolished the opponent in the mid-range rallies from five to eight shots, taking 20 from 27 and clinching 11 of the longest 16 points to make his victory clean as a whistle. Speaking about this win in Acapulco last year, Nadal said that he still remembers the first clash against Roger Federer, 16 years since they stepped on the court together for the first time.

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