Carlos Moya got the chance to make history Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati 20 years ago and he grabbed it with both hands. The former Pepperstone ATP Rankings No. 1 captured the ATP Masters 1000 crown, a feat unmatched by any other Spaniard before him. In the summer of 2002, the Mallorcan beat number 1 in the world Lleyton Hewitt 7-5, 7-6 (5) to complete his feat. A glass ceiling had been broken by a player who was brave, determined and, most importantly, willing to throw himself when the opportunity arose.
It was August 11, 2002, and the sport posed a mystery that Moya was more than willing to solve.
He’d fought his way through a draw at the mercy of his forehand, a shot that, with the help of the Ohio sun, could bring any player to his knees. It was too much for France’s Ciryl Saulnier and the Dutch Sjeng Schalkenbefore the American Michael Chang and German Rainer Schuettler also succumbed to its poison. In the semifinals Juan Carlos FerreroThe only 22-year-old on the way to the elite could not cope with the barrage.
However, on the day of the finals, Cincinnati came close to throwing a curveball.
A summer tournament, whose intense sunshine regularly put the fitness of the players to the test, had clouded over from one day to the next. By the time dawn broke, it was heavily overcast, the mercury had plummeted, and the water so coveted in days of scorching heat threatened to fall from the sky. For the players concerned with the impact of temperature on tennis ball behavior, it was a complete game changer.
One step away from the trophy and Moya was in trouble. On the other side of the net was world No. 1; the Australian Lleyton Hewitt. It didn’t look good. Moya had to make it to the best player in the world, a player who was lightning fast and whose legs never tired. A player whose flat ball was deadened on a muggy day. The Spaniard had to stop a man who had won just weeks earlier Wimbledon from the baseline. On the other side of the net stood an impenetrable wall.
“Before the game started, I was convinced that I could win it. But when we started playing, I didn’t really feel the ball. The conditions were very different from the days before,” Moya recalled at the time. “I played in a lot of sun and heat. I felt the ball didn’t bounce that high. My serve didn’t help me that much. Also, there was wind. It takes time to adapt to these conditions.”
The early exchange was an indication of the size of the mountain he had to climb. Moya and Hewitt engaged in a physical fight with the Spaniard’s shots, so dangerous under a blue sky, barely caressing the Australian’s armour. With the score at 4-4, the skies opened up in the heat of battle and the game was suspended for two hours, dividing one of the most important clashes of the year into two parts.
After failing to weaken his opponent’s trust, Moya realized he now had an opportunity. rain meant time; Time to make a plan.
“When the rain came, I went to the dressing room where I watched the replay of the game,” the Spaniard said at the time. “That’s when I realized that I didn’t hit the ball very hard. I could see it on TV. I said to myself, ‘I’m in the final because I took so many risks, because I hit the ball really hard. That’s all I have to do!’ After the rain I knew which way to go and it worked out pretty well for me.”
Rather than give in to exhaustion after an intense US swing and a match where every ounce of strength counted, Moya set about studying what was happening.
“It wasn’t the rain that helped me, it was seeing the replay. I was putting too much topspin on my forehand, but that didn’t bother him because the ball wasn’t coming up,” he explained. “I decided to attack, play flatter and look for winners. To try to get closer to the net and make the points shorter.
Carlos put his plan into action and won the first set. Suddenly he had to lose the final. But then things took a turn for the worse. Hewitt dominated the second set to take a 5-2 lead, a huge advantage in the hands of the world’s best player. Sticking to his new tactic, Moya found two breaks of serve and slipped two set points before embarking on an unforgettable tie break.
“I thought we were going to a third,” Moya said. “It’s not easy to break back twice. But I decided to relax, I had nothing to lose and just played my own game. I looked for winners and everything went wonderfully.”
Moya had defeated the best player in the world and, more importantly, dispelled any doubt that he was still up there himself. The win put him back in the top 10, a spot only achievable by players with an X-factor, and put behind the back injury he suffered in 1999, the year he reached No. 1 himself . It was a hard blow for a 22-year-old and the first serious setback of his career, also one that saw him drop out of the top 50 players on the leaderboard.
“Winning here puts me back in the top 10, which I’ve been waiting for for three seasons since I was injured. It took me a while to recover, but I’m playing pretty well now,” recognized a Moya whose hunger to get back on the road to success knew no bounds. “In my best season I had won two titles, before I came here I had already won three, so it was a good year at that point. After this week it is excellent. My goal was to get back in the top 10 and I did it.
“I didn’t expect to win the tournament because although I played well, there are many players who perform well. Hard court is not my favorite surface, but I can adapt to it. It’s a big surprise for me to win this tournament.”
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His return to the elite hardened the mind of a player destined to make history in Spanish tennis. He’d suffered the sour taste of being forced to take a step back, but now he was back and ready to savor the moment.
“This year I learned that you just have to enjoy yourself on the pitch. When you are having a difficult moment, you must remember that the good ones are not long in coming. That’s all,” he explained. “I just want to enjoy the court, that’s the most important thing for me. Feel healthy, fit. Now I know I’m healthy and ready. When that happens, I know I can be a dangerous player. I haven’t forgotten how to play tennis, even though I’ve been injured for a long time. I didn’t expect to return to the top 10, I knew it was going to be a tough road. But here I am again.”
The Spaniard, who had clinched the titles in Bastad and Umag and was close in Sopot before his breakthrough in Cincinnati, once again fired on all cylinders with his explosive tennis.
“It was a very successful period because I won three tournaments and reached a semi-final in five weeks,” said Moya. “If someone had told me that a month and a half ago, I would have said they were crazy. But for me everything is possible. If I’m lucky, I can play well and win every tournament.”
Victory in Cincinnati, which had not had a Spanish champion in its 104-year history, meant Carlos set a new record. The first No. 1 in Spanish tennis, a figurehead for so many, had once again raised the bar where it seemed impossible.
“We’re not talking about a small tournament here. This is a Masters series,” added Moya. “This is very important to me. I’m very proud to be the first Spaniard to achieve different things. This is another for me. And I feel very lucky.”