Kicking off the season from outside the top-200, Rafael Nadal made stellar progress in 2003, reaching multiple Challenger finals and showing his skills against much better-ranked and experienced rivals on the ATP Tour. The young Spaniard played in the third round in Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Wimbledon, advancing into the semi-final in Umag in July on his beloved clay and gathering momentum ahead of the US Open where he came after skipping three weeks due to an injury.
In New York, Rafa became one of the youngest players with the victory at the US Open, reaching the second round where he lost to Younes El Aynaoui 7-6, 6-3, 7-6 after grueling two hours and 43 minutes. The youngster fended off nine out of 12 break chances, stealing the rival's serve twice and falling short in the decisive moments to suffer straight-sets defeat.
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 next two points to propel the Moroccan into the last 32. "I was serving pretty well and also unlucky on a few balls when I had the chance to change the momentum.
I returned pretty well but his serve proved to be too tough in the end. It's crucial to have good serve on these fast courts and that made the difference today. The previous encounter we played was similar to this one, even though it was on clay.
I played a little bit better than the last time we played but it wasn't enough today. I'm a fighter; I fight all the time, even at 5-2 down in the third set. I bounced back and leveled the score to reach a tie break where I had my chances, missing that shot at 6-6 and losing in straights, although I gave my best to prolong the match.
I wanted to play to his forehand at 6-6 in the third set tie break, which was more difficult. I should have played to his backhand like I had been doing on other points; still, it didn't make that much of a difference."
• Rafael Nadal's last tennis life: in Australian on the border between utopia and dream• Rafael Nadal issues huge statement on Abdullah Shelbayh's talent • Rafael Nadal reveals his comeback plan - the return gets closer!• Younes El Aynaoui recounts beating Rafael Nadal, his thoughts when he first met him• Next Gen Abdullah Shelbayh tells how Rafael Nadal inspired his switch to left hand• Rafael Nadal reacts to Jannik Sinner-led Italy winning Davis Cup title