April 29, 2002 : The day Rafael Nadal made a stunning ATP Tour debut
Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On April 29, 2002, when he was not even 16 years old, Rafael Nadal made a stunning ATP Tour debut in Mallorca
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, April 29, in 2002, Rafael Nadal, at the age of 15 years, 10 months and 26 days, made his first appearance on the main tour, after the director of the Mallorca Open invited him into the main draw. In front of his home crowd, the 762nd ranked player in the world not only played, but won his first match in an ATP tournament, beating No 81 Ramon Delgado in straight sets (6-4, 6-4). That day, the Spaniard made a name among his fellow players and to tennis enthusiasts.
The players: Rafael Nadal and Ramon Delgado
- Rafael Nadal: Les Petis As champion, future superstar
In April 2002, the future Bull of Manacor was only 15 years old and not yet famous. Hardcore tennis fans already an eye on him, however. He had reached two finals in a row at the prestigious U14 tournament “Les Petits As” in Tarbes, where he was beaten by Richard Gasquet in 1999 before winning the next year against another French player, Julien Gely. Prioritising the pro circuit over the junior events, he had scored his first ATP points in 2001, reaching the quarter-finals at an ATP Challenger tournament in Barcelona. In 2002, he would participate in only one junior event, Wimbledon. At the start of the Mallorca Open, Rafa was ranked 762nd in the ATP rankings and received a wild card as a rising local star.
- Ramon Delgado: Solid pro from Paraguay, consistent clay-courter
In front of the young Spaniard stood Ramon Delgado, a consistent clay-court player from Paraguay. In April 2002, he was 25 years old and ranked 81st on the ATP list, far away from his career best of No 52, reached in 1999. He was mainly famous for his win against world No 1 Pete Sampras at Roland-Garros in 1998. The first Paraguayan to finish a year in the top 100 since 1984, Delgado looked like a solid test for the young Manacor-born southpaw.
The place: the Mallorca Open
The Mallorca Open has been held in Palma de Majorque from 1998 to 2002. It was not a big tournament in terms of prize money, nevertheless its winners list included two former Roland-Garros champions: Gustavo Kuerten (1998) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (1999). In 2002, the poster boy of the tournament was Gustavo Kuerten, three-time Roland-Garros champion (1997, 2000, and 2001). That year, in 2002, the title would be lifted by Gaston Gaudio, a future Roland-Garros champion, in 2004.
The facts: Nadal joins elite group of young winners
As it is often the case when a player as young as Rafael Nadal gets invited to an ATP main draw, tennis observers were curious. Even more so with the recent breakthrough of another player of a similar age, Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman had made himself famous a few weeks earlier, getting through the Monte-Carlo qualifications and winning a match in the main draw, defeating the solid Argentinian Franco Squillari (7-6, 3-6, 7-5) and losing only to Marat Safin (6-4, 6-1).
As he walked onto the court that day, Rafael Nadal looked quite different from how we picture him nowadays: he was not equipped with his trademark Babolat Aero racket, but used the Pure Drive model from the same brand; and he was not yet wearing his famous sleeveless t-shirts and long shorts. Nonetheless, his extraordinary spirit and his will to win were already evident, and the Spaniard didn’t let his better-ranked and more experienced opponent rattle him too much. Displaying the basics of his future successes, hitting deep with a lot of spin, he forced Ramon Delgado into a tough physical fight. Extremely consistent, after one hour and 23 minutes of play, Nadal won 6-4, 6-4. His message was very clear : you can count on me in the years to come!
With this victory, the Spaniard became the ninth player in tennis history to win a match on the main tour before the age of 16, the other players being (in order of youngest to the oldest on the day of their first victory) : Franco Davin, Tommy Ho, Jimmy Arias, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, and Richard Gasquet. He would still suffer a heavy loss in the next round against world No 70 Olivier Rochus from Belgium, 6-2, 6-2.
What next? Nadal takes steps towards immortality
Thanks to this result, Rafael Nadal climbed almost 200 places in the ATP rankings (to 588). Surfing the wave, he claimed six Futures titles in a row and a total of nine that year. He also reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, his only appearance on the junior tour, and ended the year as world number 200 on the ATP rankings, ready to move further.
The next year, in 2003, before he was 17, he beat Albert Costa (2002 Roland-Garros champion) in Monte-Carlo before entering the top 100 in April. In July the same year, he made his way to the third round at Wimbledon and entered the top 50. It was in the next two years that the general public realized how exceptional he was, after he beat world No 1 Roger Federer in March 2004 in Miami (6-3, 6-3), and went on a winning spree in 2005, claiming as many as 11 titles, including four Masters 1000 events and of course at Roland-Garros.