Tennis Prose



What was Rafael Nadal’s Defining Moment?

By Scoop Malinowski

New York Daily News columnist recently asserted the 2021 Australian Open final was the defining moment of Rafael Nadal’s illustrious career…

“Nadal vs. Medvedev. Australian final. Match of the year. As much a defining moment of Rafa’s career as anything he ever did against Federer or Djokovic. Who Rafa is and what he is — all on display over the last three sets of that match.”

Yes, what Nadal did in that final coming back from two sets down to the Russian was certainly some of Nadal’s greatest tennis magic. But I prefer two other moments in the Spaniard’s career.

The first match Nadal ever played against Roger Federer was a night match in Miami in 2004. Nadal once told me it was the best he ever felt on court, totally dismantling Federer in 69 minutes 63 63. Richard Pagliaro of was at the third round match and said the 17 year old Nadal was flying around the court that night, hitting astonishing, unbelievable shots, fist pumping more than ever. This match set the tone for Nadal’s superhuman career and later dethroning and domination of Federer.

But my favorite Nadal match – and there are so many to choose from – is one most people probably never saw or even heard about. It was also in 2004, a first round Davis Cup match at Czech Republic on a fast indoor court. It was the fifth tie of the rubber. The 17 year old Nadal was chosen by the Spain captain to play Radek Stepanek to see which nation would advance to the QF.

Nadal took on the responsibility and rose to the challenge and defeated Stepanek 76 76 64. I was given a CD of this match by chance from a friend. Nobody ever mentions this amazing victory by Nadal over Stepanek who would later become a two-time Davis Cup-clinching hero for Czech Republic. Nadal is totally focused and machine-like despite facing the most pressure he had ever experienced in his young career.

And another twist about this win by Nadal vs Stepanek was that two days earlier, Nadal was beaten by Jiri Novak 76 63 76, yet the Davis Cup captain still had the total faith and confidence in Nadal to play Stepanek in the pivotal match.

Spain would win the Davis Cup later that year in Seville and Nadal beat Andy Roddick in four sets 67 62 76 62.

A super champion like Nadal has so many monumental moments and unforgettable triumphs but the most important ones are those that happen in the beginning of the journey as they set the tone for the following career.

(Rafa artwork by Andres Bella.)

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