The ATP Masters 1000 in Miami that started on Monday, not only marks the end of the hard court season and the beginning of the clay court season, but also the ten years of the first breakthrough of Rafael Nadal into the world elite. A tournament where this great hope, ranked world 31th, will even lead 2 sets to 0 against Roger Federer in the final. Before losing. But he had finally shown the world the full extent of the phenomenon.
Amongst English bookmakers, his rating was at its lowest. In late March 2005, a few days before the start of the Miami tournament, Rafael Nadal was given winner of the upcoming French Open 33 against 1. Early April, the odds had already melted by two thirds. The reason? The Spaniard came close to winning his first Masters Series in Florida. In the final, he lost in five sets to Roger Federer, already world number one. Anecdotal. In passing, the world discovered the talent, power and mental of a brilliant kid spotted when he passed the first round of the ATP tournament in Mallorca, at home, at 15 years and 10 months old. Three years and thirty-five tournaments later, he was 31st in the ATP ranking. Only? A steady progress but held back by a series of injuries. "It's a great player. His future? Oh no, please, I'd rather not imagine the progression of this guy!" said Federer at the time, preferring to enjoy his title. The Swiss was right. He will have time later to discuss the game of the man who was to become his main rival. Worse, the one who was going to stop him from amassing major tournaments, winning every tournament or almost. And act as an absolute despot.
« Rafa couldn’t put one inside the court »
18 years and nine moths old. This was the age of Rafael Nadal when he landed under the Florida sun, without any preparation on hard surface. After the South American tour at the beginning of the 2005 season, Nadal caught the flu and returned to Mallorca to practice on clay. "There are no hard courts there. I played once with my uncle Toni, and once with my other uncle, Miguel Angel, a former Barcelona defender in the 90s," he said. At this time, Roger Federer was still alone in the world: Andre Agassi had started to feel the weight of the years, while Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick couldn't hurt him. As for the genius Marat Safin, who defeated him in the semi-finals in Melbourne, he was far too irregular to thwart his career plans. What about the little Majorcan? "During the first training sessions in Miami, since we arrived two days before the tournament, Rafa couldn't send a single ball inside the court" said Toni Nadal. For Federer, the road to victory seemed all mapped out. Until the final, where things didn't start as planned. Paralyzed, almost hung up, the native of Basel committing 24 unforced errors in the first 9 games. For his part, Nadal, seeded No. 29 and author of a perfect journey with only one set lost to Ljubicic in the last 16, was resisting. "In 2005, he based everything on his forehand and his defence. He was running a lot to win a point. He’s hitting the ball so much better today," recalls Toni Nadal. After three sets, his nephew was leading 6/2 7/6 4/1. Two games away from the match. But then the first weakness, which allowed Federer to tie and get a ball of 5-4. On this point, Nadal hit an ace... on the second ball. In a rage, Federer smashed a racquet. In the second tie-break, he found himself led 5-3, Nadal at the service, but got his act together and won the final four points of the set. The match was up for grabs again. And almost finished, since Nadal had already put most of his strength in the battle. His topspin wasn't has powerful and his balls not as long in the last two rounds. Calmer, Federer was controlling all the elements, winning his fifth title of the year, the twenty-seventh of his career, the sixth in Masters Series.
Roland-Garros in the aftermath
For Nadal, it will take a little longer before winning a major international competition. Just a little. On the 17th of April 2005, he won the Monte Carlo tournament then Barcelona, Rome and the French Open for his first participation. Like Bjorn Borg, Michael Chang and Mats Wilander, he entered the family of precocious players (at 19) to have won Roland Garros. Only downside, more symbolic than anything else, Nadal never won the Miami Masters, despite having reached the final three times thereafter, in 2008, 2011 and last year, for a defeat against Novak Djokovic. And to think that in 2005, led 4-3 in the third set, 30-0 on his serve, Federer received a refereeing error that allowed him to get back into the game. Rafael Nadal confirmed it at a press conference after the meeting: "The ball was fault, the referee didn't see it. At 0-40, it could have changed a lot of things... "A victory, perhaps, but that would simply have brought forward the inevitable: the emergence of the most daunting hypertrophied left arm in the world. And capri pants in tennis...