Ever since he made the first steps on a professional Tour, Rafael Nadal had been pushing the age limits like almost no one before him, entering the Top 100 at the age of 16 back in 2003 and also the Top 50 a few months later. He already won 14 ATP matches that season and everything was set for an even better year in 2004, opening it with the final in Auckland.
As we all know, he stunned world number 1 Roger Federer in Miami in two easy sets in March but he suffered a left ankle injury in Estoril against Richard Gasquet and was forced to miss almost three months, coming back in Bastad in July and missing all the big events on clay that spring.
Rafa turned 18 in June and his return was a rather slow, losing in the quarter-final of Bastad and Stuttgart to Gaston Gaudio and David Ferrer, and in the opening round of Toronto and Cincinnati. After that early loss in Ohio, Nadal decided to go back to Europe to his beloved clay, entering a weak ATP 250 event in Sopot.
Facing only one player from the Top 100, Rafa had beaten all five rivals in straight sets to lift his maiden ATP crown, as the youngest player since Lleyton Hewitt in Adelaide 1998! His biggest obstacle in terms of ranking was Victor Hanescu in the first round and Rafa won that match 6-4 6-4 in 80 minutes, breaking the Romanian three times.
Arnaud Di Pasquale fell in the second round and the Spaniard was in his fifth ATP quarter-final of the season. Instead of Friday, he faced Franco Squillari on Saturday due to rain and he broke his rival four times for a 6-3 6-4 win.
Later that day, a former Rome and Barcelona champion Felix Mantilla waited in the semis and Rafa claimed that encounter 7-5 6-1, taking the close first set and dominating in the rest after creating 14 break chances overall.
Like that wasn't enough, Nadal also played the doubles semi-final with Alberto Martin, losing in two close sets to Martin Garcia and Sebastian Prieto! Jose Acasuso stood between Rafa and his first ATP title and the young Spaniard celebrated a 6-3 6-4 triumph in an hour and 36 minutes, in what has been a very tight match.
There were 25 break points in total, with Nadal fending off 11 out of 12 and breaking Acasuso three times from 13 opportunities to clinch the win in straight sets and lift his maiden ATP trophy at the age of 17. The first break occurred in the eighth game of the opening set and Nadal moved 5-3 in front before closing the set with a hold in game nine, taking the momentum before set number two.
Two breaks of serve were enough for the Spaniard to clinch the set 6-4 and seal the deal, becoming the youngest ATP champion in six and a half years. A teenager didn't have time to celebrate as he had to fly to Athens where he was set to play the doubles first round match at the Olympics already on Monday but he was one happy camper with that trophy in his hands.
Nadal finished that season just outside the Top 50 but he was ready to boost his game in 2005 and become a Grand Slam champion and the closest rival of Roger Federer. ALSO READ: Jason Kubler receives the US Open wild card to play it for the first time