Rafael Nadal was 16 when the 2003 season started. Despite his young age, the Spaniard was a man on a mission in the season's opening months. Rafa reached four Challenger finals by March and claimed the title in Barletta. It was his ninth Challenger event in a career, and Nadal would play only three more in the rest of 2003 before moving to the ATP Tour.
After Barletta, Rafa qualified for his first Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo and reached the third round after stunning world no. 7 Albert Costa in straight sets. A week later, Nadal won a match in Barcelona and played in the final of the Aix En Provence Challenger in the first week of May, losing to a future Roland Garros title rival Mariano Puerta.
After a much-needed rest, Nadal entered qualifications in Hamburg, reached the main draw and showed his potential again in a 7-5, 6-4 triumph over world no. 4 and his current coach, Carlos Moya. The 16-year-old found himself in the second Masters 1000 third round within a couple of weeks, gathering experience and valuable points.
The youngster failed to reach the quarter-final following a 6-2, 6-2 loss to a future Roland Garros winner Gaston Gaudio in 59 minutes. It turned out to be Nadal's last match on clay that spring, as he missed his Roland Garros debut due to an injury.
Gaudio scored three wins over Rafa on clay, and he had a clear edge in this one. The Argentine lost eight points behind the initial shot and never faced a break point to keep the pressure on the other side. A teenager served at 73% but drew nothing from that after dropping almost half of the points in his games.
Rafa lost serve four times from six chances offered to Gaston to end his impressive run. Gaston's forehand did a lot of damage in the baseline exchanges, keeping his one-handed backhand safe. The Argentine imposed his strokes and moved the rival around the court to get him out of his comfort zone.
Gaudio grabbed the first break in the encounter's third game when Nadal's forehand landed long. Gaston held at love in the next one to open a 3-1 gap and cement the advantage.
Rafael Nadal played in the third round of Hamburg Masters at 16 in 2003.
The more experienced player fired four winners in game six to remain in front, and he created another break chance in the next one.
Gaudio seized it when Nadal hit a loose drop shot to increase the lead and serve for the opener in game eight. Gaston landed a service winner to wrap up the opener 6-2 in swift 28 minutes and gain a boost ahead of set number two.
The Argentine painted a forehand winner at the beginning of the second set to build an early advantage and move closer to the finish line. Gaston confirmed it with three winners at 15-30 in game two, and Rafa held in the next one to reduce the deficit.
Hitting well from both wings, Gaudio added three winners in game four, and Nadal followed that pace with a drop shot winner in the next one. Gaston claimed the sixth game with a forehand down the line winner and broke Rafa a few minutes later when the youngster sprayed a backhand error.
Gaudio served for the victory at 5-2 and fired a service winner to seal the deal in style and march into the quarter-final. It was a wonderful week for Nadal despite a tough loss, as he scored two wins and made another step towards the top-50 and even more significant results in 2004.