Every time I watch young Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, I am amazed the young phenom is barely 20-years-old. Unlike his female counterparts, where greatness has been achieved by several former or current players who were still in their teenage years, it usually takes a young man quite a few more years to develop into a world-class professional.
Having said that, I have to admit that Nadal has made the leap to stardom almost as fast as any young male player – barring Boris Becker – ever. Here is a look at Nadal’s career and my brief prediction on what the future may hold for the fiery youngster. Nadal he won his first ATP match in 2002 at the age of 15, defeating Ramon Delgado to become the ninth player in the Open Era to win an ATP match before his 16th birthday.
In 2003, Nadal became the second-youngest player to be ranked among the world’s top 100 singles players and finished the year in the top 50. At his Wimbledon debut in 2003, Nadal became the youngest player (at age 16) to reach the 3rd round since 16-year-old Boris Becker in 1984.
Nadal’s game – and success – really took off in 2005 however. By May of 2005, Nadal’s rapid progression helped him to reach the top five in the world rankings, becoming the youngest player to break into the Top 10 since Andrei Medvedev in 1993.
Nadal also won two ATP Masters Series events to go along with a 24 consecutive match winning streak during early 2005 – the longest winning streak of any teenager in the Open Era – topping Andre Agassi’s run of 23 matches in 1988. In his French Open debut, Nadal defeated the world’s No. 1 player, Roger Federer, in the semifinals on his 19th birthday. Two days later, sporting his trademark white Nike head band, sleeveless shirt, and three-quarter length ‘pirata’ trousers, he became the fourth-youngest Roland Garros champion in the Open Era defeating Argentina’s Mariano Puerta in the final.
He became the seventh player to win a Grand Slam in his first appearance at the event, and the first since Andre Agassi at the 1995 Australian Open. He also became the first teenager to win a Grand Slam since Pete Sampras won the 1990 US Open at age 19. Nadal is the first teenager to win six titles in one calendar year since Agassi in 1988 at the age of 18.
The start of the 2006 season marked the peak of the fierce rivalry between Nadal and Federer. On March 4, Nadal handed Federer his first loss of the 2006 season at the final in Dubai, winning 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. Nadal defeated Federer again at the Monte Carlo Masters 6-2 6-7 6-3 7-6. The two squared off again in the Rome finals. It seemed as though Federer might finally defeat his nemesis thereby ending Nadal’s streak of consecutive clay court matches. However, Nadal fought off two match points and won 6-7 7-6 6-4 2-6 7-6.
Nadal broke Guillermo Vilas’s 29-year record of 53 consecutive clay court match victories after defeating Robin SÃ?Â¶derling in the first round of the 2006 French Open. Following the victory, Nadal was presented with a trophy containing the cross section of the construction of a clay court. Vilas was on hand for the ceremony, though he does not exactly praise Nadal for his accomplishment.
The 2006 French Open final was one of the most anticipated matches in the history of the event, pitting No. 1 Federer against No. 2 Nadal in perhaps the most important match of both of their careers. For Federer, the French Open was the missing link in a career Grand Slam – and in holding all four majors simultaneously. For Nadal, he had the enormous task of defending his French Open title as well as that of maintaining a dominant winning record against Federer – something that no other player in all of the ATP could accomplish.
Though Nadal was the clear favorite based on clay-court playing ability, Federer was the overwhelming favorite with the raucous French crowd. Everyone expected a highly competitive match, much like the ones that they had played in the last three Masters tournaments. Yet, the first two sets were hardly competitive as the fierce rivals traded 6-1 sets. Nadal steamrolled over Federer through sets 3 and 4, when Federer finally broke Nadal’s serve deep in the 4th set, and forced a tiebreak which Nadal eventually won.
With an undefeated 2006 clay court season, Nadal firmly stamped himself as the dominant clay-court player in the world, and as the only player to have Roger Federer’s number, so to speak. Seeded No. 2 going into Wimbledon, Nadal reached the finals against all odds, securing a match against Roger Federer by beating Marcos Baghdatis in the semifinals. During his run, Nadal was two points from defeat against American qualifier Robert Kendrick in the second round before coming back to win in five sets. Nadal also defeated Andre Agassi in the third round, in Agassi’s final performance at Wimbledon before his retirement following the upcoming US Open.
All seven of the previous Nadal/Federer encounters had been played on either clay or hard courts; however, Wimbledon is played on a grass surface, which is Federer’s preferred surface, having won the title for three consecutive years. Though Nadal acquitted himself well in the final after a sluggish start, victory was not forthcoming, as he fell in four sets, 6-0 7-6 6-7 6-3, cementing Federer’s position at the top of the world rankings.
Despite the loss, Nadal far surpassed all expectations – except maybe his own – by reaching the finals and winning more matches at the tournament than he’d ever won on grass in his entire career. Nadal currently has a 60-match clay court winning streak-an Open Era record for a male player – and is one of only two people to win the French Open on their first attempt, the first being Mats Wilander in 1982. By defending his title in 2006, he is a perfect 14-0 in the tournament.
All I can say about “Rafa” is that this kid has a future as bright as ay young player I’ve seen in quite some time – and I don’t mean Andy Roddick either.