Rafael Nadal showed early potential, but it was until the spring of 2005 when he made clear he was destined to write his name with capital letters in tennis history.
The young Spaniard, only 18 years of age, got to the Monte Carlo finals for the first time. Prior to his first appointment with history, Nadal became the youngest player to win a Davis Cup, defeating Andy Roddick in four sets during the second match of the 2004 finals. At the end, Spain prevail 3-2 against the United States to take home the victory.
After the victory in Sao Paulo, Nadal appeared in Acapulco, defeating his fellow countrymen Alex Calatrava and Santiago Ventura, and then, the Argentines Guillermo Cañas and Mariano Puerta. The final was played against another Spainard, Albert Montañés, Rafa Nadal finished with a victorious match for the win of Abierto de Tenis, his first major title and the third of his rising list of victories.
Weeks later, in Miami, Nadal and Roger Federer, then unbeatable, played to the fifth set, allowing Rafa to show that his attitude, delivery and game would eventually become the Swiss antagonist par excellence. “We will see much more of him in the future,” said Federer, who had won three of the last four Grand Slam titles. “It was a very important game for me because I know that Rafa will be a great tennis player one day”.
That “some day” came much sooner than expected. Nadal defeated players with much more experience in Monte Carlo that year, including Guillermo Coria in four sets during the final. “Yes, it’s a title in a big tournament. The first, right? “Nadal said. “Everyone will remember this title and everything that has happened, but my goal is to improve my tennis and improve my shots. I need to improve my service, volley and slice. And if I do, I think I can win more matches, right? “
As the weeks went by, Nadal conquered Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and – debuting in the main draw – Roland Garros, his first Grand Slam.
In that season, Nadal would eventually win a total of 11 titles, setting two records at once: his personal best in a year and the best campaign of any teenager, beating the nine titles of Mats Wilander in 1983. He also became the first teenager to finish as No. 2 in the world since Boris Becker in 1986, also achieving the best position for a Spanish tennis player in history.
Thirteen years later, the script has undergone few changes. The splendid Monte Carlo marked, again, the beginning of something special for Nadal.
After a start marked by the injuries that stopped him from playing Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami, Nadal stablished the goal of returning to the courts during the clay season. Without much more expectations than returning to his rhythm of play, Nadal shone again as anyone on the clay courts. He started by winning the eleventh title in Monte Carlo, continued with the eleventh in Barcelona, the eighth in Rome and as top of the ice cream, he won the eleventh at Roland Garros.
The final played in France this year did not tell us anything new about Nadal, it just improved his reputation as the best player who has played on clay in all history. 11 titles in the last 14 years. Unreal from all perspectives.
However, something extraordinary happened in Paris during those days.
As the dominant champions age, there is a nostalgic feeling with each victory. At the same time, there is a need for a worthy rival, a surprise winner who can begin to write his own success story. There were some injuries, some annoying defeats, and slowly a narrative was constructed, that Nadal was about to dethroned.
Nadal’s opponent in the Parisian final, Dominic Thiem, gave example of what a worthy heir might be. Thiem is a clay court specialist who has reached the semifinals in Paris in the last two years and the final in 2018; is someone who knows what it is to defeat Nadal in clay on three occasions, although never in a match of five sets. The final of Roland Garros could have served to pass the crown. But Nadal, at 32 years of age, continues in full force and only he will decide when he will give opportunity to someone else to succeed in his kingdom.
Nadal burst onto the scene in 2005 as the supervillain of tennis fighting the superhero Roger Federer. 14 years have passed and since then neither of them has yielded. And if Federer reached 20 Grand Slam titles, Nadal is approaching with 17. In the process of becoming the biggest and longest rivalry, the villain has become a hero.