Rafael Nadal on his first victory over Roger Federer: ‘It was a perfect match’

Rafael Nadal was still 17 when the 2004 season kicked off, reaching his first ATP final in Adelaide. 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 up a meeting with the newly-crowned world no. 1 Roger Federer 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 with a win over world no. 1 player since the formation of the ATP Tour in 1990. Despite the young Spaniard’s evident talent and iron will, 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 so far 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 symptoms 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. 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 from his rival. The Spaniard’s defense was already on a high level, building a fortress around the baseline that was almost impossible to penetrate, even for a fine attacker like Roger. He did not lean only on that, though, attacking whenever he could and playing some well-constructed points at the net to mix the shots nicely, keep the rallies on his racquet and never allow Federer to step in and take charge.

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in their first match in 2004.

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. 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 was not a prime weapon in his arsenal in the early days. Nadal’s second serve worked like a charm too (he had to play just nine points on the weaker serve, though), losing 12 points in nine service games – something he could have only dreamed about before the start of the match. On the other hand, Roger could not 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. Federer had 16 service winners, and Nadal returned the other serves with no trouble to gain an instant advantage in the rallies and send 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. 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. Thanks to those service winners, Federer had a slim edge in the shortest points up to four strokes (31-27), but everything else was on Nadal’s side. The young gun demolished the opponent in the mid-range rallies from five to eight shots (20-7) and clinched 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 did not 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. If a player like me plays at an excellent level, and a top player like Roger does not, I can beat him. I played almost perfect tennis today, stepping inside the court and dominating the exchanges to get him out from the comfort zone. I also served exceptionally well, probably like never in my life; that was the key too,” Rafael Nadal said. 

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