Rafael Nadal qualified for his first Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo 2003, still 16 years old. The young Spaniard played at a high level in Challengers in the first three months of the season, and was ready to put his skills to the test at the ATP level on his beloved clay.
Nadal defeated Karol Kucera in the first round for his first Masters 1000 victory and gained momentum before a more challenging clash. In the second round, the youngster defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Albert Costa, 7-5, 6-3 in two hours, earning the first win in the top 10 and drawing the attention of the entire tennis world.
The less experienced Spaniard fended off 14 of 17 break opportunities and fought for every point to emerge on top after a grueling battle, winning five breaks to book a spot in the last 16 and cement his top 100 status. Rafa won the first set with a late break in game 12 when Costa added a forehand error, moved ahead at 4-3 in set number two and sealed the deal with his serve in the next game for one of his wins.
most notable before 2005. "It was another excellent match for me. At first, it was a bit normal, as I showed too much respect and was afraid of the opponent on the other side of the net. Afterwards, I started to play better and better because he didn't play at his usual level.
I did my best to claim victory. He was very eager to compete, while he was a bit scared after facing a younger opponent."
Toni Nadal on how the game has changed
Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal's uncle and ex-coach, recently spoke at length about his nephew, the Big 3, the Next Gen and tennis in general on a Spanish podcast.
And in one section of the interview, Toni tried to explain why Novak Djokovic isn't as popular among the fans as his two big rivals. "It hurt him to finally arrive on the circuit when there was already a very strong rivalry between Roger and Rafa," Toni said.
"Federer and Nadal, they were two opposing styles, two different trajectories, and that made the fans very excited. It was therefore difficult to find a place at that time." Uncle Toni also addressed how the game has changed since the time Rafael Nadal came onto the tour.
He feels that players nowadays invest more in the physical aspect of the game than the strategic part. "This sport has become a game of speed, not strategy," Toni said. "In a short time, everything has accelerated a lot.
In the first years of Rafa's career, you found players who allowed to play, who fought for every ball and thought. Now the way to seek victory is to hit hard before the opponent."