The Day Nadal Won His First Emirates ATP Rankings Point
He was 15 years old, but already had the trademark spirit that brought him all the way to the World No. 1 position where he stands today. It was a Monday, the 17th of September in 2001. The clay of the Real Club de Tenis Betis was burning early in the morning. An unranked youngster, who was already touted to carry an enormous potential, was about to debut at an ATP Challenger Tour event, in search of his first point in the Emirates ATP Rankings. His name was Rafael Nadal.
"Who’s your opponent?"
"A wildcard… Rafael Nadal."
"Oh! That guy plays well, but he’s really young."
This conversation is remembered by Israel Matos Gil, Rafa’s opponent in the first round, a qualifier and No. 751 in the Emirates ATP Rankings back then. Right after the draw ceremony, his fellow players warned him about a danger that he had already seen himself some days before.
“I heard that a Spanish player was doing really well for his age. However, I saw him play his first ITF Futures event in Madrid against one of my practice pals, Guillermo Platel. After having many match points, Rafa didn’t get the victory but he didn’t lose his temper on court either,” Israel reflects.
“The next day, when we arrived at the club at eight in the morning, Rafa was already training. It shocked me how a guy who had lost such a tough match the day before could be the first to appear on the practice court. That made me think: I have to follow this guy."
The sport gave Matos Gil the chance to see the magnitude of such a phenomenon the very next week in Seville. Just a game was enough for him to understand that the precocious 15 year old on the other side of the net, who was receiving compliments all the time, had a special talent.
“His demeanor on court was simply incredible. His look, his character. How a kid of his age was able to see the things with that clarity on court. How he was able to behave like an adult, as if he was used to playing those kinds of tournaments for years."
Brave and without signs of fear, he started breaking his opponent’s serve.
“He broke me and immediately celebrated it with his trademark move, lifting his fist and his knee”. That was pure Nadal. Passion and determination together, with victory as its only destiny. There were some dramatic, tense moments. But in those pivotal points he always knew how to play. That was not usual. There were really good guys of his age, but he was a different player.”
6-4, 6-4. The score was decided in Rafa’s favour, giving him his first five points in the Emirates ATP Rankings. “Back then, Rafa didn’t have such an aggressive game, but his movement was excellent. He made you compete for every single ball and didn’t give free points,” describes Matos. “His tennis has evolved into a more offensive version, but at the beginning he was able to win rallies by out-running his opponents. He could chase down 10-12 balls, ready to keep playing until the other player was exhausted.”
The difference was made not only by his game, but also by his stature on the court. “If we talk about his presence on court, he was a 15-year-old guy who behaved like a 20 year old. It seemed that he had much more experience than he really had. I played, I lost and I immediately knew he would do big things”, said his opponent on the Andalusian clay, who vividly remembers the handshake at the net. “I told him I was surprised by his game. I was obviously disappointed but it wasn’t the usual anger. I had just lost against a young player who had a special demeanor on court. I congratulated him as I did with very few people after a defeat.”
Rafa’s run ended in the second round. Italy's Stefano Galvani, crowned champion some days later, saw how the Majorcan was the only player able to get a set from him during that week. “Since a very young age he showed special details in such a demanding sport, where physical, mental, technical and tactical acumen are needed to succeed. Seeing how he dominated the mental side and how he kept his emotions under control was astounding”, added Matos, a privileged witness the day that Rafa won his first Emirates ATP Rankings point.