Rafael Nadal had barely played some junior events before deciding to embrace a pro career, pushing the age limits like almost no one before him and entering the top-50 in 2003 at the age of 17. The Spaniard already claimed 14 ATP wins that season and everything was set for an even stronger 2004, opening it with the first ATP final in Auckland.
As we all know, Rafa had stunned world no. 1 Roger Federer in Miami in two easy sets in March before suffering a left ankle injury in Estoril against Richard Gasquet that forced him to miss almost three months and the Roland Garros debut, returning in Bastad in July and losing in the quarter-final there and in Stuttgart to Gaston Gaudio and David Ferrer, also in the opening round of Toronto and Cincinnati.
After that early loss in Ohio, Nadal decided to go back to Europe to his beloved clay, entering a weak ATP 250 event in Sopot. Facing only one player from the top-100, Rafa defeated all five rivals in straight sets to lift the maiden ATP crown on April 15, becoming the youngest champion on the Tour since Lleyton Hewitt in Adelaide at the beginning of 1998!
Nadal’s most significant obstacle in terms of ranking was Victor Hanescu in the first round and a teenager won that one 6-4, 6-4 in 80 minutes, breaking the Romanian three times to book the spot in round two. There, he ousted Arnaud Di Pasquale for the place in already the fifth ATP quarter-final of the season.
Instead of Friday, he had to face Franco Squillari on Saturday due to rain, breaking the opponent four times to forge a 6-3, 6-4 triumph and stay on the title course. Later that day, a former Rome and Barcelona champion Felix Mantilla awaited in the semis and Rafa overpowered the more experienced compatriot 7-5, 6-1, taking a tight first set and dominating in the rest after creating 14 break chances overall.
Like that wasn’t enough, Nadal also played the doubles semi-final with Alberto Martin, losing in two close sets to Martin Garcia and Sebastian Prieto, finishing the Saturday’s duties and preparing for a big day on Sunday!
Jose Acasuso stood between Rafa and his first ATP title and the young Spaniard celebrated a 6-3, 6-4 victory in an hour and 36 minutes, in what was a close battle with no less than 25 break points in total! In the manner of experienced champions, Nadal repelled 11 out of 12 chances offered to Acasuso and broke him three times from 13 opportunities to clinch the win in straight sets and lift the maiden ATP trophy at the age of 18.
The first break occurred in the eighth game when Nadal moved 5-3 in front before closing the set with a hold a few minutes later, taking the momentum before set number two. Two breaks of serve were enough for the Spaniard to clinch it 6-4 and seal the deal, becoming the youngest ATP champion in six and a half years.
A teenager didn’t have time to celebrate as he had to fly to Athens where was set to play the doubles first-round match at the Olympics already on Monday, traveling to Greece as a happy camper with that trophy in hands.
Nadal finished 2004 season just outside the top-50 but was ready to boost his game to an even higher gear in 2005 and become a Grand Slam champion and the closest rival of Roger Federer.