Relive Federer & Nadal's First Battle
“The World No. 1 leading the way behind the man who very might well become the World No. 1 one day.”
That was the commentary as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal walked on court for their third-round match in Miami 16 years ago. There was a sense of anticipation. Federer was the top seed and No. 1 player in the FedEx ATP Rankings and his opponent, Nadal, was World No. 34 at the tender age of 17.
“He has already proven himself at his age, to be ranked as good as he is. I think he's already actually proven that he's a great player,” Federer said before the match. “He doesn't right now need to beat all these top players just to show them that in three years' time he can be No. 1 in the world and win Grand Slams. I think all he needs is time.”
The pair actually played one another in doubles at the previous event, Indian Wells, with Nadal and Tommy Robredo defeating Federer and Yves Allegro in three sets. But the Swiss was still the favourite, even if he knew he’d face a stiff challenge.
“I think he's put a lot of hard work into his game,” Federer said. “I think he's enjoying his tennis. That's exactly what he should do. We'll see how strong he will be in two years. But the start to his career so far has been incredible.”
Nadal had already played big matches, including a third-round clash against Lleyton Hewitt in the third round of that year's Australian Open. Federer didn’t sense any nerves from the Spaniard.
“In the beginning maybe a little bit, when you walk on court. I think he's kind of a little bit shy on court. He looks at me as an incredible, great player,” Federer said. “I just felt more of a respect level than nerves.”
Nadal showed he was unafraid of taking the match to the more experienced Federer. The lefty used his heavy forehand to keep the top seed from attacking, putting more pressure on Federer to play more aggressively from less advantageous positions, which led to errors in key moments.
Nadal jumped at every opportunity to hammer his forehand cross-court at Federer’s backhand at Crandon Park. The 17-year-old did not face a break point, winning 75 per cent of his service points in a 6-3, 6-3 triumph against Federer, sealing his upset after just 70 minutes.
“I’m very happy because I played one of the best matches in my life. Obviously, he didn't play his best tennis and that's the reason why I could win,” Nadal said. “If he had played his best tennis, I would have had no chance. But that's what happens in tennis. If a player like me plays at a very, very good level and a top player like Roger doesn't play his best tennis, I can win.”
Nadal felt he had to take Federer out of his game, and he did just that, allowing the Swiss to win just 62 per cent of his first-serve points, while the Spaniard won 79 per cent of points on his own first delivery.
“I played almost perfect tennis today, because I was playing inside the court, dominating the exchanges and pressing him so he couldn't play his game,” Nadal said. “I served extremely well today, probably I never served like this in my life. That was really the key.”
Federer was complimentary of Nadal before they stepped on the court, and so there wasn’t a moment during the match when he was taken aback by his opponent.
“I’m not surprised. I've heard a lot about him and saw some matches of him,” Federer said. “I think this is not a big surprise for everybody.”
It took just one match for Federer to recognise a pattern in their ATP Head2Head series that would prove defining for years to come.
“He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard. It's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce, bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it, but kind of couldn’t,” Federer said. “I thought in the beginning I maybe wasn't going for my shots enough, where in the end I thought I was hitting the ball better. But I felt the match maybe kind of went his way, and he hit some really incredible shots.”
Federer and Nadal have since played 40 times at tour-level, with the Spaniard leading their series 24-16. From their five-set final in Miami the following year to the 2008 Wimbledon championship match and plenty more epics, they have gone on to craft a legendary rivalry that nobody will soon forget.