Oct/20

15

First Time I Saw Nadal

The first time I saw Rafael Nadal play live was at US Open in 2003. By then he was already ranked 45 in the world at the age of seventeen.

The muscular Spanish boy had already made waves in pro tennis, having defeated Carlos Moya, Gilles Muller, Magnus Norman, Younes El Aynouai, Mario Ancic, Albert Costa, Karel Kucera and Fernando Verdasco that year. When a 17 year old shows he can beat so many established names so early, it’s quite clear a phenom is in the making.

2003 US Open, I remember Nadal played countryman Fernando Vicente, ATP 61, on court 4 but for reasons I can’t exactly remember, I did not watch any of the match, not even a single point. I did walk by the match and heard an uproar but that’s the only memory of Nadal’s debut US Open win, which was to the tune of 64 63 63.

When Nadal was scheduled to play Younes El Aynaoui in the second round on grandstand in the afternoon, I made sure to be there. The old grandstand was called “the best seat in tennis” by Sports Illustrated’s SL Price and a greater truth was never told.

Nadal vs. The Rockin Moroccan was a barn burner and one of the most vividly memorable matches I ever saw on Grandstand.

Nadal was a tornado in Nikes. I remember he wore white shorts and a maroon shirt, and white Air Court Motion shoes. He was a ball of energy and fury, pulsating around the court like a man possessed. His intensity level and focus were arresting, even beyond Hewitt, Serena and Roddick. I never saw another player try so hard and want to win the match like this boy wonder. He played like nothing else in the world mattered and nobody loved the sport with as much passion, or maybe even half as much.

In the first set Nadal was behind a break but stormed back to level the match and force a tiebreaker. His spirited work ethic and burning desire connected him to the arena crowd, who responded euphorically to his sensational play, fist pumping and iron will.

Already this kid could bring a court to life, he could whip a crowd into a frenzy. Clearly Nadal was overmatched on hard court by the more experienced El Aynaoui, though he did beat the veteran on clay earlier in the year.

El Aynaoui was ranked 21 and still a dangeorus player, most famous probably for his marathon five setter with Roddick in Australia or the story that he once drove a bus at Bollettieri academy before becoming a world class tennis pro.

Nadal fought tooth and nail with everything he had, flying around the court. He was down in the first set tiebreaker but got it back to 6-6 before losing the next two points.

During the first set drama I remember being stunned, in disbelief that a kid could be such a fierce competitor already. After some of the more important, thriller points, when the crowd was in delirium, I glanced over to the Nadal box to see their reaction to this show – it was just his uncle and agent Carlos Costa back then. I was surprised to see them looking so stoic and blank, and almost unimpressed, as if they’d seen this brand of electrifying tennis so many times already before. And they knew they would see it so many times again in the future.

That was what really stood out. Their expressions conveyed in silence that knew Nadal could do this, could beat anyone in the world already at seventeen.

Nadal would end up losing that early evening to El Aynaoui 76 63 76 (both tiebreakers were 8-6) but everyone who was at this match KNEW this was just the beginning. And when he beat Federer the next April in Miami 63 63, it came as no major surprise.

After losing to El Aynaoui, Rafa actually slumped through the rest of the 2003 season, going 1-4. He beat Rodolphe Cadart but lost to 123 ranked Richard Gasquet 2-6, ret. at St. Jean de Luz, France Challenger.

Then he lost Dominik Hrbaty in Lyon 36 57.

Followed by losing to 127 ranked Alex Corretja in Madrid 26 63 46.

Then came another 1R loss, to Feliciano Lopez in Basel 63 36 67.

Nadal lost in Paris Indoor qualies.

I did a Biofile with Nadal at this 2003 US Open and the photo above was sent to me from colleague/friend Dino Garcia, which he snapped after Nadal’s press conference following the El Aynaoui match, which most tennis fans don’t remember even happened but it will always be one of my favorite Nadal memories.

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