Back in 2003, Rafael Nadal was the youngster to watch, gaining more than 150 places on the ATP ranking list and setting the foundation for the years to come. The youngster reached six Challenger finals and won two titles, advancing into the third round in Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Wimbledon and playing in the semi-final in Umag, just a month after turning 17!
Struggling to find the rhythm in the second part of the year, Rafa made a fresh start in 2004, reaching the first ATP final in Auckland and winning his opening matches at the Australian Open against Michal Tabara and Thierry Ascione to find himself in the last 32 where he faced the crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt.
The youngster gave his best against the home star, losing 7-6, 7-6, 6-2 in two and a half hours after having chances in sets one and two to at least prolong the clash. Lleyton lost serve twice and grabbed four breaks, prevailing in the closing moments of sets one and two and leaving the young rival behind in the third, saving more energy and sealing the deal without having to spend more time on the court.
"I played well for the entire match; my performance was excellent tonight, just like the encounter overall. I had opportunities to perhaps take at least a set, which I was not able to do. Towards the end, I started to feel a bit tired; the physical aspects began to catch up with me.
Still, I was thrilled with my performance. I was nervous at the beginning of the match, just like in any other; I don't think the 15,000 people over-awed me that much. I was playing on the Centre Court at Major tournament and that might have affected me to some point, but certainly not much.
Lleyton is a great player; he performed at a very high level. Forehand is my strongest shot and his forehand worked like a charm as well; that's why he won in the end."