Marat Safin, Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero and others were the most prominent youngsters at the Millennium turn, earning Major titles and conquering the ATP throne. Born in 1986, Rafael Nadal was yet to show his true colors, making his first steps on the professional Tour in 2001 and 2002 to find himself on the verge of the top-200 at 15!
Armed with an iron will, unbelievable strength at such a young age and skills to challenge almost anyone on slower surfaces, Rafa made thrilling progress in 2003 to reach the top-50, entering six Challenger finals and lifting two trophies.
That alone would have been enough for a notable season, but Rafa did much more. The Spaniard raised his game to become competitive on the ATP level and reached the third round at Wimbledon, Monte Carlo and Hamburg and the semi-final in Umag, establishing himself as the young gun to watch in the years to come.
At the Australian Open 2004, Rafael Nadal said he would love to become world no. 1.
Struggling to find the rhythm in the second part of the season due to injuries, Rafa was eager to make a fresh start in 2004, playing in the first ATP final in Auckland and winning two matches on the Australian Open debut against Michal Tabara and Thierry Ascione.
Entering the final 32 at Majors for the second time at 17 after the last year’s Wimbledon, Nadal faced the crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt. A teenager gave his best in a 7-6, 7-6, 6-2 loss after two and a half hours, squandering his chances in sets one and two and losing ground in the third to hit the exit door.
Showing his incredible fighting spirit, Rafa came from a break down in the opening two sets and forged a 2-0 advantage in the tie break of each, only to lose them and propel Lleyton through after getting broken twice in the third set.
After the encounter, Rafa was asked about the possibility of becoming world no. 1 in the future, with the young gun hoping to conquer the ATP throne at some point but highlighting how difficult that task is. “Becoming world no.
1 is quite a complicated process; I hope I can reach that level one day, but it depends on many things,” Rafael Nadal said.