Rafael Nadal had barely competed in junior events before embarking on a professional career, transcending age barriers like few before and finding himself in the top 50 at 17 in 2003! The Spaniard claimed 14 ATP wins this season and all was set for an even stronger 2004, especially after the inaugural ATP Finals in Auckland.
Rafa stunned world No. 1 Roger Federer in straight sets in Miami before suffering a left ankle injury at Estoril against Richard Gasquet. It forced him to miss almost three months and the Roland Garros debut. The Spaniard returned in July, losing to Gaston Gaudio and David Ferrer in the quarterfinals in Bastad and Stuttgart.
The youngster failed to find form in North America and was eliminated early in Toronto and Cincinnati. Nadal returned to Europe and his beloved clay, competing in a weak ATP 250 event in Sopot. With just one player in the top-100, Rafa defeated five rivals in straight sets on August 15 to claim the first ATP crown. He became the youngest champion on the tour since Lleyton Hewitt in Adelaide in 1998!
Rafael Nadal won his first ATP title in Sopot in 2004 at the age of 18.
Nadal’s most significant ranking obstacle was Victor Hanescu in the first round. A teenager won it 6-4, 6-4 in 80 minutes, breaking the Romanian three times to earn a spot in round two.
He edged out Arnaud Di Pasquale for a spot in the fifth ATP quarterfinals of the season. Instead of Friday, he had to play against Franco Squillari on Saturday because of rain. The youngster broke opponents four times to earn a 6-3, 6-4 triumph and stay on the title course.
Later in the day, a former Rome and Barcelona champion, Felix Mantilla, awaited in the semifinals. Rafa defeated the more experienced compatriot 7-5, 6-1 after 14 break chances and a dominant second-set performance. That’s not all, Nadal also played the doubles semi-final with Alberto Martin.
They lost in tight straight sets to Martin Garcia and Sebastian Prieto, completing challenging tasks and preparing for a big day on Sunday! Jose Acasuso stood between Rafa and his first ATP title. The young Spaniard claimed a 6-3, 6-4 victory in an hour and 36 minutes in a close battle with no fewer than 25 break chances!
In the manner of a seasoned champion, Nadal fended off 11 of 12 opportunities offered to Acasuso, breaking the Argentine three times to win in straight sets and lift the first ATP trophy at 18. The first break came in game eight of the opener as Nadal pulled 5-3 up front.
A few minutes later, he ended the set with a hold, which gave him momentum. Two breaks of serve in the second set were enough for the Spaniard to seal the deal 6-4 and become the youngest ATP champion in six and a half years.