At the beginning of 2003, the 16-year-old Rafael Nadal was ranked just outside the top-200, improving his position rapidly after advancing into four Challenger finals by the end of March, winning one title. Ready to show his skills on the higher level, Rafa reached the third round in Monte Carlo as a qualifier and repeated that in Hamburg and Wimbledon, backed by more good results on clay in July and the first ATP semi-final in Umag.
The youngster had to slow down a bit by the end of the year, returning stronger in 2004 when he played for the first ATP title in Auckland and reached the Australian Open third round, losing to Lleyton Hewitt after giving his best in sets one and two.
Following the first Davis Cup triumph for Spain and a couple of more wins, Nadal cracked the top-40 and gained momentum ahead of Miami, where he ousted world no. 1 Roger Federer in grand style, scoring a 6-3, 6-3 win in just 70 minutes for the place in the last 16.
Rafael Nadal knew he could reach the top in the future already at 17 in 2004.
It was a brilliant example of Nadal’s progress in a previous couple of years, improving his serve and developing an aggressive approach that he combined with out of this world defense that was already good enough to challenge any Tour player.
The youngster lost 12 points in nine service games, sailing behind the initial shot and mounting the pressure on the other side. Roger couldn’t follow that pace, suffering three breaks and trailing 31-12 in the more extended exchanges to propel Rafa over the top.
Pleased with how he performed, Nadal said he feels he belongs there at the top, raising his level and improving all the elements to become one of the world’s best players in the upcoming years. “I have more confidence in comparison to the previous season, knowing I can play at this level and that I belong in the top-tier of the ATP rankings.
I have raised my game, and I believe I belong to the top. Physically, it would be fine for me to repeat this kind of performance at Majors, already winning matches at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open,” Rafael Nadal said.