Back 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 little bit different, making giant steps towards the place in the Top 100 in 2003, and starting the next season ranked inside the Top 50, still at the age of 17! Mallorca native was a perfect mixture of an amazing physical strength at such a young age, unlimited determination, talent, and a will to improve in every match he played, and we saw him in the first ATP final in Auckland in the second week of the season. He lost to Dominic Hrbaty 7-5 in the third set but this only made him work even harder, scoring some nice wins at the Australian Open, Milan, Dubai, and Indian Wells, almost always as by far the youngest player in the draw. Nadal beat a former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic in the second round of Miami, setting up a meeting with the newly-crowned world number 1 Roger Federer!
The match took place on March 28, and no one could predict it will be the opening chapter in one of the biggest rivalries that the world of tennis have ever seen. At the age of 17 years 9 months and 25 days, Rafael Nadal scored a sensational 6-3 6-3 triumph in just 70 minutes, to become by far the youngest player since 1990 who managed to defeat the reigning world number 1 (Michael Chang was a year later when he took down Stefan Edberg at 1990 Grand Slam Cup). Despite his indisputable quality and a will to compete, no one could see this coming, not against the player who won Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells, and who lost just 1 match since the start of the year. A week before, Roger claimed the title in Indian Wells but he would have a few days to recover physically if he didn't feel signs of illness and fever, never looking good on the court. He barely survived a challenge from Nikolay Davydenko in the previous round and had nothing left in the tank for the young Spaniard.
All that aside, we should not take anything from Nadal's triumph, as it really was an impressive one! Playing with no signs of nerves, Rafa did just about everything right on the court, choosing right tactics and throwing everything he had on Roger, who had to step back and lay down his weapons. Nadal made a huge damage with his topspin forehands, that bounced high and took the time off from Federer's shot, who never settled into a desirable rhythm. 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, mixing his shots nicely in order to keep the points on his racquet, never allowing Federer to step in and take charge with his forehand. Nadal did struggle with his backhand but that couldn't hurt him, as Roger played below his usual level to experience his second loss of the year, and a rather unexpected one.
Nadal's serve gave him a huge advantage in the first meeting with Roger, as he never faced a break point or a deuce in his games, opening the space to play more aggressively on rival's serve, which he did. Also, Rafa served at 81% and he won 31 out of 39 points after the first serve, which was great for the player who not base his game on the initial shot. His second serve worked like a charm (had to play just 9 points on weaker serve) and he lost just 12 points in 9 service games, something he could have only dreamed about before the match started. On the other hand, Roger was unable to follow those numbers in his games, dropping almost 40% of the points on his serve and having to play against 7 break points, getting broken 3 times which was all Nadal needed to bring the win home. Roger had 16 service winners but some of his serves were really slow, and Nadal had no troubles to return them and gain the instant advantage in the points, 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 match with 9 service winners, which was also helpful, and he had a 14-11 advantage in the winners from the field, hitting with more variety than his rival, who only had 2 winners outside his forehand. Swiss made 17 unforced errors, 12 from his stronger wing, and Nadal stayed on 14, mainly thanks to his backhand. Spaniard made the biggest difference in the forced errors segment, hitting just 3 from his backhand while Roger had 16! That is a nice 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 4 strokes (31-27), thanks to those service winners, but everything else was on Nadal's side. Rafa demolished his rival in the mid-range rallies from 5 to 8 shots, 20-7, and he also clinched 11 out of the longest 16 points to make his victory clean as a whistle.
Federer opened the match with 2 service winners and Nadal added 2 errors from his backhand and Spaniard responded with a good hold in game 2, taking 2 8-stroke rallies to get his name on the board without difficulties, which was important for the youngster. Roger had 3 service winners in game 3, so as Nadal in the game that followed, including another attractive rally with 13 shots. The set was decided in the 5th game when Rafa converted his 3rd break point to gain the lead, returning well and covering the court exceptionally to leave his rival with no answer. Federer fends off the first break point with a service winner, Nadal couldn't control his backhand at the second but the third was a lucky one when Roger made a backhand error. Nadal again lost two points on serve in game 6 (his backhand was still off) but he closed the game with a good attack, forcing another mistake from his opponent to move 4-2 ahead.
Roger's serve was nowhere near the required level and he faced 2 break points in game 7 after 2 forehand return winners from Nadal. With no margin for mistakes, Roger saved the first with a service winner and the second with another short point, bringing the game home with 2 forehand winners right after the serve to reduce the deficit to 4-3. In game 8 Nadal had to be careful at 30-30 but he showed no signs of hesitation, taking a great 16-stroke rally and closing the game with a smash at the net for a 5-3, just a game away from the opening set. Federer had to consign his serve in the 9th game as well, dropping the set after 33 minutes. Swiss was 30-0 in front when he made 4 errors in a row, unable to find the right strokes or to penetrate his rival, taking some risky shots and that didn't pay off.
Spaniard served at staggering 86%, winning 16 out of 19 points after landing the first serve in, placing it well and with a lot of variety to sail through his service games. He was focused in those games when he lost 2 points, never letting Roger reach deuce or a break point. On the other hand, Roger served at only 55% and he faced 6 break points, something that wasn't expected on a hard court. He had 10 service winners against 5 from Nadal but Spaniard toppled him in the winners from the field by 7-5. They made the similar number of unforced errors, it was 9-8 for Roger in that segment, and it was the forced mistakes that delivered the set for the teenager, as he made just 1 compared to 8 from the world number 1.
Nadal continued where he left in the first set, earning a game point with a volley winner at the start of the second set and bringing a game home after another mistake from Roger, who was unable to impose his shots and keep the points on his racquet. In the second game, Federer had a dominant hold with 2 service winners and 2 more from his forehand, which is what he needed against such a strong opponent who was ready to fight for every ball. Swiss won a pulsating 25-stroke rally at the start of the 3rd game but Nadal recovered quickly to move in front, with 2 winners and another error from Federer. The fist groundstroke after the serve did a great job for Nadal, giving him the opportunity to control the points with his lethal forehand and keep Roger off balance.
In game 4, world's leading player won 2 longer rallies, which was also important if he wanted to make a turnaround, but he was still powerless on the return, with Nadal moving 3-2 ahead with 2 unreturnable serves and another great rally that he finished with a smash. His first serve was still under 80% and that kept him safe so far. The 6th game was crucial, Roger wasted a 40-0 lead to get broken and there was no coming back from that position, not against such an inspired rival. Federer opened the game with 3 winners but instead of bringing it home he made some huge forehand errors to bring Rafa back into the game. Amazing backhand cross court winner gave Nadal a deuce, he defended great in the next point to earn the break point and Roger did the rest, saving his worst forehand for the final point to lose serve and see clear writing on the wall. Everything was in Spaniard's hands now and he remained calm like this was some regular Challenger match against a player ranked outside the Top 250.
He won 2 longer rallies in game 7 to build a 5-2 advantage before Federer came back to 3-5 with a good hold in game 8. It was too late for him, though, Rafa served for the win in game 9 and he wrapped up a victory in style, after 3 errors from his rival and a smash winner in the final point, to start a huge celebration of what has been by far the biggest win of his young career. It was 6-4 for Federer in service winners, which could never give him much, and they were close in the number of direct points from the court as well, with Nadal leading 7-6. Roger made more unforced errors, 8-6, and he was again beaten badly in the forced errors department, with Nadal staying on 2, 6 less than Federer who committed 8, just like in the first set.
Point by point result and the number of shots in the rallies: