Rafael Nadal has clinched most of his titles on clay, although his first ATP final came in Auckland 2004 at 17, losing it to Dominik Hrbaty in a tight third set. Twelve months later, the young Spaniard advanced into the fourth round of the Australian Open and pushed Lleyton Hewitt to the limits before losing in five sets, shining on clay in February to win titles in Sao Paulo and Acapulco.
In 2004, Rafa stunned Roger Federer in Miami and had another great run in Florida in 2005, beating five players to earn the place in the final, his first at the Masters 1000 series and the most notable one on hard courts of his young career.
Nadal had a great chance of winning the title, squandering a massive lead against Roger Federer to leave empty-handed. However, an impressive tournament for an 18-year-old boosted his confidence before a fantastic clay swing in the next two and a half months.
In the semi-final clash, Nadal toppled the fellow Spaniard David Ferrer 6-4, 6-3 in an hour and 31 minutes, avenging a tough loss to David in Stuttgart 2004 and moving into his third ATP final. Rafa served at 69% and lost 17 points in nine service games, facing two break chances and dropping serve once to keep the pressure on the other side of the net.
David failed to make an impact behind his initial shot, holding without facing troubles only twice and getting broken four times from six opportunities offered to Nadal. Both players made more winners than errors, and the younger Spaniard controlled his shots more efficiently, dictating the pace from the baseline with his deep and accurate groundstrokes and counting his rival's numerous errors to seal the deal in style.
Nadal had one loose service game, but that didn't cost him much as he already forged a significant advantage in the opener, dropping five points behind the initial shot in the entire second set to sail towards the finish line.
Ferrer couldn't impose his shots from the baseline or move Rafa from the comfort zone, struggling to find open space against the super quick opponent who covered the court beautifully or pass him with direct points. David had to chase the lines and go with risky shots to take the initiative away from Nadal, but that didn't end well, spraying over 40 errors and not matching Rafa in the winners department.
A teenager played well-composed tennis, finding the right balance between defense and aggression, hitting the same number of winners from the forehand and backhand wings and having a clear edge in the most extended exchanges to earn the win fair and square.
Ferrer was 11-8 in front in service winners, but that couldn't stand as a game-changer in the encounter between these two fine baseliners. Nadal made a 17-10 difference in the winners from the field, firing seven from forehand and backhand each and allowing David to land only four forehand winners.
In 2005, Rafael Nadal toppled David Ferrer to reach the Miami Open final.
The unforced errors were the crucial element of this clash, as Ferrer sprayed no less than 33, 21 of those from his forehand that let him down completely, many times in the critical moments.
Rafa stayed on 18 unforced mistakes, and despite the fact he had more forced errors (13-7), he would never lose with numbers molded so much in his favor. Overall, Nadal had 25 winners and 31 errors while David counted to just 21 winners and 43 mistakes, and it is safe to say that the more experienced Spaniard could be satisfied with these seven games he won.
Rafa was 31-27 in front in the shortest points up to four strokes, and they split the mid-range exchanges, winning 16 each and leaving the most advanced rallies to decide the winner. Nadal earned the triumph in that segment, taking 21 out of the 30 most extended points thanks to his outstanding anticipation and the ability to cover both sides of the court no matter how intensive the rival's attacks were.
It was the worst start of the match for David, who wasted two game points and got broken after five errors! Nadal was 30-15 down in game two before hitting two service winners to confirm the break and move 2-0 in front. Ferrer failed to find his range and lost two lengthy exchanges with 20 and 24 strokes in game three to suffer another break after Rafa's forehand winner.
We saw two deuces in game four on Nadal's serve, avoiding break chances with two winners in the game's closing stages and after Ferrer's basic errors. David started to play with more aggression in game five and still had to battle against a break point following a costly double fault.
He saved it and brought the game home with two service winners and forced Nadal's errors to get his name on the scoreboard and reduce the deficit to 4-1. Rafa held with ease in game six to continue his strong run, reaching another deuce on the return in the next game to move two points away from the set.
David held with two quick points and pulled one break back after Nadal's three errors, as the young Spaniard lost his focus while serving for the set at 5-2. Ferrer held in game nine after deuce thanks to a couple of service winners, forcing Rafa to serve for the set for the second time.
A teenager made no mistakes this time, taking advantage of Ferrer's three mistakes to seal the set in 52 minutes and move closer to the finish line. Like in the opening set, Ferrer made four errors at the beginning of the second to give his serve away at love.
Nadal did everything right in the second game to grab it with three winners and create a commanding 6-4, 2-0 gap, taking another big step towards the finish line. David held with three service winners in game three, and this was very important for his confidence, having to work hard if he wanted to get back on the scoreboard.
He couldn't do much on the return in game four, though, allowing Rafa to move 3-1 ahead with a hold at love and facing a break point after a 29-stroke rally in the next one. Ferrer saved it and completed the game with a long 18-shot exchange that kept him within one break deficit.
Rafa had two winners in game six to open a 4-2 gap, with both holding at 30 in the next two games, leaving Ferrer to serve for staying in the match at 3-5. He made four quick mistakes to end his campaign in the worst way, sending Nadal into his first Masters 1000 final as the second-youngest player to achieve that after Michael Chang in 1990.