May 7 2008: The day Ferrero became the first player to beat Nadal in Rome

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On May 7th in 2008, Rafael Nadal suffered his first-ever loss in Rome against his fellow countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero.

What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history

On this day in 2008, May 7th, Juan Carlos Ferrero managed to edge the king of clay Rafael Nadal, three-times Roland-Garros champion, who had lost only once on clay in the last three years. It was the first time in his career that Nadal was defeated in Rome, and it was also the first time in five matches that Ferrero prevailed against him on dirt. “El Mosquito” remained the only player to beat Rafa on clay that year.

The guys involved: The king of clay and “El Mosquito”

Rafael Nadal

In 2008, the 22-year old Majorcan, ranked no.2 in the world, seemed almost unbeatable on clay. Undefeated on dirt since his loss against Roger Federer in Hamburg the previous year, he had lost only four matches on his favorite surface since 2005, while claiming 117 wins.

Three-times defending champion at Roland-Garros, Nadal had just won two titles in a row in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, dropping only one set, each time becoming the first player to win the tournament four times.  This year, probably because of his plans to improve on grass, he had made his game more aggressive, putting extra pressure on his clueless opponents,  making him the ultimate clay-court player. He had never lost in Rome before, claiming the titles in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Rafael Nadal - Rome 2007

Juan Carlos Ferrero 

Born in 1980, Juan Carlos Ferrero had his peak years between 2000 and 2003. In these days, he was considered as one of the very best clay-court players in the world: he compiled a 111-25 match record on red dirt – winning three of his four ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophies – and went 23-2 at Roland Garros, where he finished runner-up in 2002 and captured the 2003 crown against Martin Verkerk (6/1 6/3 6/2).

That year 2003,  he also became world no.1 in September, after reaching the final at the US Open, where he was defeated by Andy Roddick (6/3 7/6 6/3), who also took the world no.1 spot from him eight weeks later. He had started well in 2004, only beaten by Roger Federer in the semi-final of the Australian Open (6/4 6/1 6/4), before chickenpox followed by a wrist injury ruined his season.

He left the top 10 in September and never made his way back into it. In the years to come, he would stay in the top 30, only performing sporadically at the very best level, far away from his glorious years. Arriving in Rome, he was ranked no.23 in the world.

The two players had faced each other four times before on clay, and the lefty had won each time. Their last encounter happened just a few weeks prior to the Italian Open, in Monte-Carlo, and Nadal had easily outplayed Ferrero 6/4 6/1.

Juan Carlos Ferrero - Rome 2008

The place

The Italian Open had been held in Rome since 1935, at the Foro Italico, a massive sporting complex originally designed to support an Italian bid to host the 1940 Olympics. One of the Masters 1000 events, it is still one of the most prestigious clay-court tournaments in the world. Almost all of the best players in history have set foot on the courts of the famous Stadio del Tennis di Roma venue. 

Both players had won the tournament before: Juan Carlos Ferrero had claimed the title in 2001, beating Gustavo Kuerten in the final (3/6 6/1 2/6 6/4 6/2), while Rafael Nadal had won the three last editions of the event, in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Rome - Masters 1000

The facts: an earthquake

In Rome, in 2008, there was only one real favorite, getting all the attention: Rafael Nadal. The lefty just seemed unbeatable. For his first match. he was to play Juan Carlos Ferrero, no.23 in the world. The days when the 2003 Roland-Garros champion was seating on top of the ATP ranking seemed very far away.

The two players had just crossed paths in Monte-Carlo a few weeks before and the youngest Spaniard had crushed Ferrero, 6/4 6/1, leaving him as powerless as any other player. Against the mighty Bull from Manacor, no one would put his bets on “El Mosquito”.

Nonetheless, Ferrero still had skills, even if he was not a top 10 player anymore, and his fighting spirit was still strong. He did not come on the court that day just to witness the greatness of his opponent. Now his footwork was sharp, his forehand as precise as in his prime, and since the first points, he played aggressively, hitting jumping backhands to contain Nadal’s topspin. The players, as predicted, engaged in some intense rallies from the baseline, with Nadal trying to lock down Ferrero on his backhand side. The Spaniards were close, 1/1, 2/2, 3/3.

In Rafa’s player box though, faces were grim. Something was wrong. They knew Rafa had trouble moving around the court because of severe blisters he had contracted in Barcelona. Those who had seen him dispatching his opponents the previous week could also see that his shots were shorter than usual, just enough so the Mosquito could sting.

Maybe Ferrero was not the great player he’d used to be, but he took his chances, stepping in and dictating the game with his forehand, sometimes even stealing the net, and, despite Nadal’s desperate efforts, he claimed the first set 7/5.

Calling the physio twice would not save Nadal. He was too diminished to beat a player as good as Ferrero that day, and he lost the second set 6/1. For the first time in Rome, someone defeated Rafael Nadal. That person was Juan Carlos Ferrero.

What was next

“Sunday when I woke up at 6 in the morning and put my foot down on the floor, I couldn’t put it on the floor. Today when I woke up, I said it was impossible to play. I spoke to the doctor today and yesterday and they put special protection on it and cream, but it was still tough. Juan Carlos is a very tough opponent, but certainly if you’re not 100 percent at a Masters Series event it is very tough. I congratulate Juan Carlos, but today for sure was not my best tennis.”

This is how Nadal would reflect on his match in his press conference. He was paying the toll for too much success and his body had let him down. Not for long though: the following week, he would hold the trophy in Hamburg, edging Federer in the final (7/5 6/7 6/3).

A few weeks later, his performance at Roland-Garros would be a masterpiece. He would claim the title without dropping a set, and he would absolutely outplay his rival Roger Federer in the final, 6/1 6/3 6/0. A month later, he would achieve the most outstanding feat: he would beat the Swiss in his own garden to claim the title at Wimbledon (6/4 6/4 6/7 6/7 9/7), becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg to win these two Grand Slams the same year. In August, Rafael Nadal would become the new world no.1.

Juan Carlos Ferrero would go on to lose against Stan Wawrinka (aged 23 and then ranked no.24) in the next round (6/4 6/3). Unfortunately, being the only man to defeat Nadal on clay would be his greatest achievement in 2008 as the season would turn into a nightmare for the Spaniard. After retiring in the first round at the French Open with leg injury while facing Marcos Daniel, he would have to retire in the second round in Wimbledon with a hamstring injury (against Mischa Zverev).

Eventually, a shoulder injury would force him to withdraw from the US Open. He would only attend three tournaments afterwards and would leave the top 100 in February 2009. That year, he would reach a Grand Slam quarter-final for the last time at Wimbledon, defeated by Andy Murray (7/5 6/3 6/2), and participate in Spain’s Davis Cup successful campaign. He would then remain a top 30 player until 2011 when some new injuries would keep him away from the tour for seven months. After a last effort to climb back to the 37th rank in the world in July 2012, he would retire from professional tennis in October, after losing to Nicolas Almagro (7/5 6/3) in front of his home crowd in Valencia. 

 

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