At the beginning of 2003, the 16-year-old Rafael Nadal was ranked a few spots outside the top-200, setting eyes on much higher positions and big goals in the next 12 months. The Spaniard was among the players to beat on the Challenger level in the first three months, losing the first three finals before lifting the trophy in Barletta to find himself on the verge of the top-100.
Rafa was the material for that group even before turning 17, reaching the third round in Monte Carlo and Hamburg and playing in another Challenger final before suffering an injury that forced him to skip Roland Garros and all the pre-Wimbledon events.
At the All England Club, Nadal became one of the youngest players in the third round and gathered a boost ahead of the second clay swing. Nadal earned valuable wins on clay in the upcoming weeks in July and skipped all the pre-US Open action due to another injury.
In New York, Nadal defeated compatriot Fernando Vicente in the first round for a winning US Open debut. The youngster suffered a 7-6, 6-3, 7-6 loss to Younes El Aynaoui in the next match after challenging two hours and 43 minutes.
Nadal fended off nine out of 12 break chances, stole the rival's serve twice and fell short in the decisive moments to suffer straight-sets defeat and finish his first US Open campaign.
Rafael Nadal revealed his ranking goals at the US Open 2003.
Giving his best to stay in touch, Nadal came from a break down in sets one and three, reaching 6-6 in both tie breaks before losing the following two points to propel the Moroccan into the last 32.
After the match, Rafa admitted he would love to crack the top-10 or top-5 in the future, aware that there are many high-quality players but indicating his desire to match that level in the future. As we all know, it came under two years later when he became one of the world's greatest players alongside Roger Federer, forging his legacy that still stands strong after 20 years on the Tour and many stressful moments due to injuries.
"I had some good results this year, but I try not to think too far ahead. If you play and practice well, the ranking positions will come. That's why I'm not thinking about the upcoming Majors or Masters 1000 events.
I'm trying to improve all shots and add more power. I have been working on my serve and slice backhand; I need to improve that to be more competitive. In the future, I want to reach the top-10 or top-5, but many great players are still in front of me. It will be tough, but I have the desire to chase that goal," Rafael Nadal said.