Rafael Nadal made great progress in the opening three months of 2003. The 16-year-old lost three Challenger finals and headed to Barletta eager to lift his first crown. Martin Vassallo Arguello is a former Argentine player who retired in 2011, cracking the top-50 in 2009 and reaching the last 16 at Roland Garros three years earlier.
The winner of eight Challenger titles from 20 finals, Martin had the opportunity to battle against the future world no. 1 Nadal in Barletta, with the 16-year-old Spaniard entering the ninth Challenger tournament of his young career.
Rafa defeated Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in the opening match to set the Vassallo Arguello clash.
Rafael Nadal scored an impressive victory at the 2003 Barletta Challenger.
The upcoming star battled hard against the more experienced rival and notched a 6-7, 7-5, 6-3 triumph to reach the quarter-final.
Thus, he stayed on the title course on his beloved surface, determined to win the first title at that level. Recalling the match, Martin Vassallo Arguello praised the Spaniard and his fighting spirit at such a young age. Martin informed his coach Guillermo Perez Roldan about the result, and the famous Argentine knew Rafa would become something special following such a tight victory at 16.
Vasallo Arguello claimed the opener in the tie break and had two break chances at 5-5 in set number two. Rafa denied them and stole the set, gaining a boost and taking the decider 6-3 for a place in the quarter-final. "I asked for information when I learned I would play against Rafa Nadal in the second round.
He defeated Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in the first match, who told me that Rafa is a promising junior who already hits the ball at a high pace. I won the first set that lasted for an hour and was waiting for his game to drop in set number two.
Rafa was still tiny and skinny, without a big serve. However, it was challenging to earn a point against him, running from one part of the court to another and getting everything back. I led 40-15 at 5-5 in the second set but could not close that game.
Rafa grabbed a break and clinched to set to gain momentum. He took the third set 6-3 and remained on the course toward his first Challenger title. Rafa surprised me, and that was a key to his victory. After the match, I informed my coach Guillermo Perez Roldan about the result.
He told me that if I played well as I said and still lost, we would be talking about a boy who would write tennis history," Martin Vassallo Arguello said.
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