Rafael Nadal is preparing for his first match at this year's Monte Carlo Masters, chasing his 11th title in the Principality, and it is a nice occasion to go back 13 years in the past and examine his first triumph in Monte Carlo, which was also the first big title of his illustrious career.
It came on April 17, 2005, when an 18-year-old Spaniard made his first step towards a clay greatness, ousting Guillermo Coria 6-3 6-1 0-6 7-5 in 3 hours and 9 minutes for his maiden Masters 1000 crown. This was only the 10th tournament for Nadal at this level (he made a debut here two years ago) and he was already ranked in the Top 20 after reaching the final in the previous Masters 1000 tournament, squandering a big lead against Roger Federer to fall in five sets.
Pumped and motivated to prove himself on the beloved clay, Nadal stormed over four rivals to reach the semis in Monte Carlo, losing 14 games in total against Gael Monfils, Xavier Malisse, Olivier Rochus and Gaston Gaudio to advance into the last four where he faced another huge talent born in 1986, Richard Gasquet.
The match lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes and Rafa had to save a break point in the seventh game of the deciding set before he scored a crucial break that sent him into the final. Guillermo Coria was the player who halted Nadal's amazing run in Monte Carlo 2003 at the age of 16 and this was a nice chance for the Spaniard to serve a revenge and beat the defending champion and last year's Roland Garros finalist.
At the age of 18 years 10 months and 14 days, Nadal has become the youngest Masters 1000 champion since Michael Chang in Canada 1990, and it is hard to imagine someone would take him down from the second place on the list.
Despite a one-sided scoreboard in the opening three sets, it took more than 3 hours for Nadal to wrap up the win and prevail in the contest of two of the finest clay courters. Rafa has won 14 points more than Guillermo, defending his second serve better and fending off 11 out of 16 break points.
Coria struggled to find the pace on his second serve and he had to play against 20 break chances, falling on seven to hand the win to his rival despite a break point in the ninth game of the fourth set that could keep him in contention had he managed to take it.
Rafa broke in the 12th game to complete the win in four sets and celebrate the biggest success of his already great young career. Guillermo made a perfect start, winning five points in a row to break Rafa in the first game of the match with a forehand drop shot winner at the net and holding in game two after a 36-stroke rally for a 2-0 lead.
Rafa got the break back in game six after a double fault from the Argentinian and he gained the momentum, coming for a 3-1 down to rattle off five games in a row, winning the opener 6-3. Coria sent a backhand long to get broken again in game eight and the last game of the set proved to be the longest of the match, with Nadal serving for the set at 5-3.
The Spaniard had to save three break points as the rain started to increase and the set was in his hands when Coria netted a backhand in the 14th point to hand the opener to his young rival. Nadal was the player on the mission at the moment and he broke at love at the start of the second set when Coria sent a forehand long and he fends off two break points in the following game to confirm his break and grab the seventh game in a row after another unforced error from Coria in game two.
Things went from bad to worse for Guillermo and he double faulted in game five to fall 4-1 behind, losing nine out of the last 10 games to find himself in a real trouble. Rafa was the better player in the crucial points and he saved two more break points in game six and he closed the game with a service winner to move 5-1 in front, forcing Coria to serve to stay in the set.
The Argentinian sprayed four errors to lose his serve at love and Nadal was now a set away from the title. The youngster controlled the pace after a slower start, winning 11 of the last 12 games and saving seven out of eight break points he faced since the start of the match to take a commanding lead before the rest of the match.
Guillermo had to act quickly and he made things better at the start of the third set, breaking in the opening game when Nadal sent a backhand long and he did the same in game three after a 23-shot rally and another backhand mistake from the Spaniard.
Rafa had a chance to pull one break back in game four but he squandered three break points to fall 4-0 behind and he lost serve for the third time in a row in game five when he netted a forehand. Serving for the set, Coria saved a break point with a service winner and he grabbed the set after another groundstroke error from Nadal, seizing the set 6-0 and gaining the momentum before the fourth set that he also had to win to stay in contention.
Rafa struggled a lot in this set and he had only one winner and 19 errors, unable to maintain the level from the opening two sets. The Spaniard quickly restored the order, breaking Coria in the second game of set number four with an amazing volley winner and he held in game three after another outstanding point to create a 3-0 gap.
Guillermo came back from 40-0 down to force a deuce on the return in game five but Nadal managed to hold with a lob winner that pushed him 4-1 ahead, moving closer and closer to the finish line. The match could have been over when Coria hit a double fault in game six to offer two break points to Rafa but he dug deep to save them all and bring the game home when Nadal sprayed a forehand long.
That game became even more important when Guillermo broke back in game seven and he was on the level terms with Nadal after a good hold in game eight. A forehand winner gave Guillermo a break point in game nine, only to be denied by a forehand winner from Nadal in what has been one of the crucial points the Spaniard had hit in the entire match.
Rafa closed the game with two more winners to remain in front and they both served well in the following two games, leaving Coria to serve for staying in the match in game 12. Facing two match points, he saved the first one with a forehand winner but Nadal clinched the win on the second after a forehand down the line winner, lifting his first big title and sending a clear sign he would be the player to beat in the rest of the clay season.