- A wildcard, Rafael Nadal.
- Ah! That kid’s good, but he’s very young…
Monday 17 September 2001. Real Club de Tenis Betis, Seville. An unranked 15-year-old boy, invited by the organisers of the Copa Sevilla, was already starting to turn heads. The name Rafael Nadal was on people’s lips after he had come close to picking up his first ATP point a few days before in a Futures event in Madrid, where he lost a handful of match points. That late-summer day, at that ATP Challenger Tour tournament, he sealed the prize that slipped from his grasp the previous week against Israel Matos.
“I’d heard that there was a Spanish kid who was doing really well and who was making a name for himself, but you always heard those kinds of comments. However, I saw him play in his first ITF Futures in Madrid against one of my training partners, Guillermo Platel. Rafa didn’t win, after losing a raft of match points, but he did not lose his attitude or composure on court”, remembers Matos in statements published on the official ATP website.
Even then, the Manacor native was showing glimpses of the trademark style that has set him apart throughout a stellar professional career in which he has accumulated enough titles to put him among the best players of all time. “The next day, when we got to the club at eight in the morning, Nadal was already training. It struck me that the player who had lost such a tough game the previous day was the first out training. That made me think that he was a name to follow”.
And Matos had the chance to follow him in person, in the opening round of the Challenger in Seville. One game was enough to understand all the praise that had been heaped on him by those that had seen him play. “It was incredible to see his demeanour on court, his look, his character. Seeing how such a young boy was capable of having things so clear on court. How a boy was capable of behaving like an adult, as if he had been coming to tournaments of this type all his life”.
Nadal started the match by breaking serve, unafraid of a player four years his elder. “He broke my serve and celebrated it with that characteristic raising of a fist and a knee”, remembers the then world no. 751. “There were moments of intensity, tension, break points, but in those difficult moments he always knew how to react to those tricky situations that I managed to put him in. It was not normal. There were good kids of his age, but he was a different player...” he says, still surprised by the quality and determination of such a young athlete.
The Balearic Islander closed out the match in two sets (6-4, 6-4) to guarantee the first 5 ATP points of his career and earn on 24 September 2001 his first appearance in the official ATP Rankings at no. 1002 in the world. “Even when he was little you could see the unusual things in such a young kid in such a demanding sport, which requires a physical, mental, technical and tactical balance. Seeing how he mastered, above all, the mental aspect and how he controlled his emotions was stunning”, maintains his opponent all these years later.
If there is one thing that surprised Matos at the time, it was the feeling that he was facing someone special, a player that seemed to have been on tour for much longer, but, above all, a player that knew what he wanted to be. “In terms of his character and image, he was 15 years old and he seemed 20. He gave the impression that he had been on court for more years than he really had. I played, lost and knew that people would talk about it”, he says after one final confession; “I told him that I was surprised about how he played. Obviously I was angry, but it wasn’t anger like normal. I had just seen a very young kid carry himself on court in a very special way. I congratulated him in a way that I rarely do after a defeat”. And he was not wrong.