Roland-Garros: 19 years ago, at 19, Nadal began a unique reign

If, on May 23, 2005, you were sitting in the stands of the defunct court number one, you witnessed, without fully understanding the meaning and scope, a unique event. That day, Rafael Nadal played the very first match of his career at Roland-Garros, against the German Lars Burgsmuller, who had also unknowingly entered the history of the Parisian Grand Slam thanks to this more or less enviable status. first victim of the future king. The first of a long, very long series.

Incidentally, it was also the only match played by the sovereign of Spain elsewhere than on Chatrier or Lenglen. A sign, perhaps, that at the dawn of this 2005 edition, young Rafa is still only a young champion in the making. However, it is already well established. Winner of the Masters 1000 in Monte-Carlo and Rome as well as in Barcelona, ​​he arrives at Porte d’Auteuil with the label of favorite. But here, it’s a Grand Slam. This is another thing. Will it be strong enough, solid enough, big enough, mature enough to last the entire fortnight? At the time, remember, no player under 20 had won a Major since Pete Sampras at the US Open 15 years earlier.

Mats Wilander, however, remembers a form of evidence. “I had seen enough of him to be convinced that this was something completely new.explains the Eurosport consultant. This style of play, this way of hitting the ball, was never seen before on clay. First because he was left-handed, then because he put such passion into his desire to kick everyone’s butt that he was the favorite to win that year, then the next, and the next..” But it still had to be proven on the ground.

Rafa, this “very shy” boy

For more than a decade, Spanish tennis had become accustomed to regularly tasting the Coupe des Mousquetaires, from Sergi Bruguera (1993, 1994) to Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003) via Carlos Moya (1998) or Albert Costa (2002). Nadal seemed destined to extend the tradition, perhaps transform it into lasting hegemony. Alex Corretja, double finalist in Paris, is one of the rare players to be undefeated against Nadal with more than one confrontation with him. Two matches, two victories. Well, OK, in 2003. “Little” Rafa was not yet 17 when Don Alex met him for the first time in Barcelona, ​​on earth. A painful victory, in three sets.

Nadal was already starting to cause trouble on earth. In the spring of 2003, he beat Costa in Monte-Carlo and Moya in Hamburg. “Facing it meant already facing enormous intensity from the first point“, remembers Corretja. But for him “he was still learning“.”Before our match in Barcelona, ​​I had tried, not to intimidate him, but to make him understand that I was the established player, the one who had the most experiencehe tells us. I think for him it was difficult to face someone like me, even if it seems like a joke to say that today in hindsight when we compare our two careers…

Alex Corretja remembers a young man”very shy“.”When you spoke to him, he barely looked you in the eyes, he lowered his head.” And the eldest spoke of his first steps in the Davis Cup, a few months later: “I don’t know if he was impressed, but he showed a lot of respect towards us (him, Moya, Ferrero, the staff). We felt admiration in him in the way he looked at us.”

Rafael Nadal in April 2003, at age 16.

Credit: Imago

Federer, already a pain sufferer

Back in 2005. Rafael Nadal is barely out of adolescence, as he will celebrate his 19th birthday during Roland Garros, which will become a habit for him as well as for the tournament, but it is the day and the night between the kid of 2003 and the one who is now advancing as a conqueror and already scaring everyone, at least on clay. “For me he was readybreathes Corretja. He was two years older, a lot of experience for his age, he knew the circuit better, his opponents better.”

His third round against Richard Gasquet, in the most exciting match of the first week, proved revealing. The two young people are the same age, give or take a few days, and their recent fierce duel in Monte-Carlo seems to augur a lasting future rivalry. But in the immensity of Philippe-Chatrier, everything still seems too big for the Biterrois. The court, the setting, the stakes, and above all, the opponent. Nadal is in his place. It’s not yet his garden, but not very far away.

The most anticipated match of the fortnight, the final before the letter, is the half against Roger Federer. Their third duel, after the first two on hard, in Miami. Nadal won the first (at 17 years old!) and lost the second in five sets after leading two sets to nothing. Here again, 2005 will lay the foundations for an immutable reality at Roland-Garros. Six matches, six victories for Nadal.

What’s very, very strange about watching Federer and Nadal face off at Roland Garros is that even when Federer pushed Rafa and pushed him into four sets, it seemed inevitable that he wouldn’t come out never a winner. He just couldn’t do itnotes Mats Wilander. I pretty quickly thought ‘With his forehand top spin falling on Federer’s backhand, Roger won’t be able to beat Rafa on earth.“At least not in three winning sets. That will be his eternal limit on the ocher surface.

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Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Credit: Getty Images

Wilander’s “nightmare”

Winner in four sets under the gray, the Majorcan buries the Basel illusions. A failure which therefore announces others. Federer will become his favorite scapegoat at Roland. This semi-final, played on June 3, Nadal’s 19th birthday, opens the doors to his first major final. His last opponent is just as new to a duel of this kind as he is. But he was much less expected. Mariano Puerta, left-handed gaucho and lumberjack, offers a different equation from Federer. Above all, he asks Nadal a question that torments everyone: playing his first Grand Slam final so young, with such a favorite label, isn’t that a bit heavy to bear?

For some, maybe. Not for Nadal. “I knew Puerta, I had played him before, he was dangerous but paradoxically, I think Rafa felt more experienced, even if he was youngerJudge Corretja. I think he entered the court with, in his mind, the feeling of being the favorite, of being the one who had to win. I would have loved to feel that. Yes, it puts more pressure, but give me that pressure. It also gives confidence. If I fail, it’s because I wouldn’t have been up to it. Faced with Moya or Kuerten (his two tormentors in the final in Paris, Editor’s note), I knew deep down that they had something extra” Knowing that you have all the cards in your hand is a luxury. And the truly great champions like that. They take care of the pressure.

I have a memory“, Mats Wilander tells us about this final. Curiously, it dates from… Saturday. The day of the women’s final, the day between the semi against Federer and the title match against Puerta. “Carlos Costa, Rafa’s agent, calls me on Friday to say, ‘Mats, could you hit a few balls with Rafa tomorrow?’ ‘OK, no problem’takes over the former world number one. It didn’t take me more than 10 minutes to regret my decision. It was an absolute nightmare hour for me.” With Nadal, everything was already different. His ball is unlike any other.

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Mats Wilander and Rafael Nadal in 2005 at Roland Garros.

Credit: Getty Images

The scent of the first

The Swede and the Spaniard in any case share one thing. A feat that they are the only two to have accomplished in the Open era: winning at Roland-Garros on their first participation. If Nadal’s coronation did not carry the same surprising character as that of Wilander 23 years earlier, the fact remains that the scent of a great first always has the same scent. Especially revealing to yourself who you really are.

I would not have imagined for a single second in 1982 that I could beat great champions like Vitas Gerulaitis, Ivan Lendl, Jose-Luis Clerc or Guillermo Vilas“, concedes Wilander, when the Manacor debutant probably hadn’t come to Paris to go shopping or sightseeing.”Buthe adds, there is one thing that I can imagine without any problem. I think Rafa must have realized in 2005 that he was strong and said ‘wow, am I that good? But will that be enough to be better than anyone else? I’ve no idea. So I’m going to play like I’ve been doing since I was 12 years old. I’m not going to make any mistakes. I won’t be tired. And mentally, I’m going to be strong.'”

The final (four sets for Nadal, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5), intense and fierce, is perhaps one of the most underestimated in Nadal’s collection. Because Puerta does not have the prestige of a Thiem, a Wawrinka, not to mention obviously a Federer or a Djokovic. In the body and even more in the head, the Spaniard impresses by going the distance and not blinking after seeing the breathtaking first set slip through his fingers. Puerta, mired in doping cases, will never set foot at Roland-Garros again. Nadal would play 13 other finals there, and win them all.

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Roland-Garros: The 2005 final between Rafael Nadal and Mariano Puerta.

Credit: Getty Images

The old Nadal would have put 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 on the young Rafa

Obviously, the almost supernatural scale and duration of his dominance was unimaginable in 2005.”Honestlyadmits Corretja, when I saw him win at 19, I thought he could win the tournament 5 or 6 times, without problem, maybe even 10, why not. But 14… But I was amazed by what he had achieved and I was certain that he could have the opportunity to make history, yes.

But there is something almost as impressive as Rafael Nadal’s track record here. This is the way his game has evolved. “Physically, it was already exhausting to score a point against him, it was so hard, because he was very fast and covered the ground very well, relieves Corretja. But it wasn’t serving as well. His service was OK but he didn’t cause you any huge problems. His backhand was solid, but he didn’t hit him that hard.”

If you compare the Nadal of the Decima with that of 2005, the old Nadal would have put 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 on the young Rafaeven says Mats Wilander. The latter already had extraordinary courage, an incredible absence of fear. But he was far from the player he would become. As Nadal got older, he got stronger and stronger.“No one will ever have the luxury of witnessing this Nadal vs Nadal, the ultimate earthly tennis confrontation, but Wilander is undoubtedly right: the Nadal of 2005 was still a very imperfect “product”. However, from the height of his 19 years old, he was already above everyone But below what he would be. And that seems crazy.

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