Skip to main content

Memory Lane: Rafael Nadal beats Roger Federer to launch historic rivalry

Rafael Nadal (left) sent Roger Federer packing in their first career match. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

On March 28, 2004, a 17-year-old Spaniard named Rafael Nadal introduced himself to the world by defeating No. 1 Roger Federer 6-3, 6-3 in the third round of the NASDAQ-100 Open. The surprising 70-minute victory for the 34th-ranked player in the world kick-started a 10-year rivalry that has spanned 33 meetings, including eight Grand Slam finals and perhaps the greatest match of all time, the 2008 Wimbledon final.

Nadal, the youngest player in the tournament (which is now called the Sony Open), was a highly touted prospect but had yet to win a tour-level title. Federer was the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and had become No. 1 for the first time seven weeks earlier. Federer entered with a 23-1 record for the year, including a 12-match winning streak after back-to-back titles in Dubai and Indian Wells.

Lefty vs. righty. Two hands vs. one hand. Speed vs. precision. Even their kits -- Federer in ice white and Nadal in fiery, sleeveless red -- told the story of their dynamic and contrast in styles.

The best moments from the Federer-Nadal rivalry

Federer recalled this week that he came into Miami that year feeling under the weather and barely survived his opening-round match against Nikolay Davydenko. The Swiss said he started feeling better before playing Nadal, who won his opener when Goran Ivanisevic retired after losing the first set.

"I never really got into the match," Federer said. "Still maybe a bit tired, but he played great and I was impressed with what I saw."

Rafael Nadal was ranked 34th when he upset Roger Federer 10 years ago in Miami. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal

The ease with which Nadal won was striking. He faced no break points, broke three times in seven chances and flustered Federer with his spinning strokes, aggressive play and tireless defense. And it wasn't just baseline tennis on display from the Spaniard. Yes, he hit big off the ground, but he showed his all-court game, too, attacking the net, hitting drop-shot winners and whipping the Miami crowd into a frenzy with his boundless energy.

"That was clearly for him a big arrival on the scene, especially on the hard courts," Federer said this week. "Because that's always a big deal if you can beat a world No. 1 on the hard courts, like when I beat [Lleyton] Hewitt here a couple years earlier [in the 2002 semifinals]. I think everybody thought he was just a clay-courter, and he proved that he was probably going to be more than just that. He went on to have this great career many expected him to have."

After beating Federer, Nadal lost to No. 22 Fernando Gonzalez in the fourth round. Four and a half months later, Nadal won a clay-court tournament in Poland for his first title, and the following year he busted out with 11 titles, including the French Open crown in his first main-draw appearance.

Highlights from Federer-Nadal I below (click here for the full match):

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

(via Tennis4HDpro)

Here's what they said after the match 10 years ago:


On how his rhythm was disrupted (Federer's answer foreshadowed his difficulty against Nadal over the years): "He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard. It's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it, but kind of couldn't. 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. That's what youngsters do, so ... [Laughter].

Roger Federer didn't earn a break point against Rafael Nadal in their first match. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Roger Federer

On Nadal's game: "His forehand is for sure his biggest shot, and his all-court speed."

On Nadal's competitive nature: "He's a different character on the court. He relies much more on his fighting spirit, like Lleyton [Hewitt] does a little bit; I compare him at his age. So everyone has their attitude. I's a definite good one to have -- very much success early in his career."

On Nadal's prospects: "We all remember when we were 17; we already felt we were great players. Then, suddenly, you're around for a few years and you feel like, 'Well, now I've proven it to everybody I'm a good player.' It's totally different view of the game. Especially interesting are the first three years. So 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 has been incredible."

On whether Nadal seemed nervous: "In the beginning maybe little bit, when you walk on court. He's kind of a little bit shy on court. He looks at me as an incredible player. I just felt more of a respect level than nerve."


On beating the No. 1: "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. If he had played his best tennis, I would have had no chance."

On his mindset going into the match: "I was afraid that he could win 6-1, 6-1 or 6-1, 6-2, but I was really looking forward to playing this match because I was playing against the No. 1 player in the world. I went on court with a positive attitude, not with the attitude of, 'Oh, let's try and win one game.'"

On his game: "When I play well, I'm a very aggressive player with a good forehand and I fight very hard on the court."

On his hard-court prowess: