Rafael Nadal had barely played junior events before deciding to embrace a pro career, pushing the age limits like almost no one before him and finding himself in the top-50 in 2003 at 17! The Spaniard claimed 14 ATP wins that season, and everything was set for an even stronger 2004, especially after the first ATP final in Auckland. Rafa stunned world no. 1 Roger Federer in Miami in two easy sets before suffering a left ankle injury in Estoril against Richard Gasquet. It forced him to miss almost three months and the Roland Garros debut. The Spaniard returned in July and lost in the quarter-final in Bastad and Stuttgart to Gaston Gaudio and David Ferrer. The youngster could not find the form in North America, bowing out early in Toronto and Cincinnati. After that early Ohio defeat, Nadal returned to Europe and 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 August 15, becoming the youngest champion on the Tour since Lleyton Hewitt in Adelaide 1998! Nadal’s most significant ranking obstacle was Victor Hanescu in the first round. A teenager won that one 6-4, 6-4 in 80 minutes, breaking the Romanian three times to book a spot in round two. There, he ousted Arnaud Di Pasquale for a place in 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 following 14 break chances and a dominant display in set number two.
Rafael Nadal claimed the first ATP title in Sopot 2004 at 18.
Like that wasn’t enough, Nadal also played the doubles semi-final with Alberto Martin, losing to Martin Garcia and Sebastian Prieto in two close sets, finishing challenging duties and preparing for a big day on Sunday! Jose Acasuso stood between Rafa and his first ATP title, and the young Spaniard proclaimed a 6-3, 6-4 victory in an hour and 36 minutes, in what was a close battle with no less than 25 break chances! In a manner of experienced champions, Nadal repelled 11 out of 12 opportunities offered to Acasuso and broke the Argentine three times to win in straight sets and lift the maiden ATP trophy at 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 to grab momentum. Two breaks of serve in set number two 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 did not have time to celebrate, as he had to fly to Athens and play the doubles first-round match at the Olympics already on Monday, traveling to Greece as a happy camper with that trophy in his hands. Nadal would finish the 2004 season just outside the top-50, ready to boost his game to an even higher gear in 2005 and become a Major champion and Roger Federer’s closest rival.