Young Spaniard surprises Federer

Updated: April 21, 2004, 4:12 PM ET
By Cynthia Faulkner | ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Some players, if they were still recovering from the flu, would use that as an excuse for being upset by a 17-year-old, no matter how talented the kid is. Not Roger Federer.

The world's No. 1 player lost and although he said he didn't quite play his game, he still made no excuses for the 6-3, 6-3 loss to Rafael Nadal on Sunday night at the Tennis Masters Series-Miami.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal celebrates his upset with a fist pump on match point.

"I felt the match maybe kind of went his way and, you know, he hit some really incredible shots," Federer said.

In a match that lasted only an hour and nine minutes, Nadal became the first teen-ager to defeat a No. 1 player since Andy Roddick defeated then No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten at the Tennis Masters Series-Montreal in August 2001. Nadal is only the second man this year to defeat Federer, other than Tim Henman.

Only the day before, Federer compared Nadal to himself.

"I think he's a very quiet guy and confident on the court. I felt the same way at his age."

Federer says the left-handed forehand is Nadal's biggest weapon along with his all-court speed, but Nadal also has great will.

"He's a different character on the court (than myself)," Federer said. "He relies much more on his fighting spirit, like Lleyton (Hewitt) does a little bit."

Federer went through a similar breakthrough victory against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. However, Federer said he'd grown up idolizing Sampras.

"He's got different idols, I think," Federer said. "I think he's kind of a little bit shy, you know, on court. He looks at me as an incredible, great player, you know. I just felt more of a respect level than nerve."

"If a player like me plays at a very, very good level and a top player like Roger doesn't play his best tennis, I can win," Nadal said. "But, sure, I'm really, really happy."

As if you couldn't tell when he leaped into the air with a joyous fist pump on match point.

"I played almost perfect tennis today because I was playing inside the court, dominating the exchanges and pressing him, so he couldn't play his game," Nadal said. "I served extremely well today, probably never served like this in my life."

Bragging? Sure. But the stats back him up. His first-serve points percentage was 79 compared to Federer's 61. Federer never even saw a break point chance.

Nadal is a 6-foot, 165-pound lefty, who uses his tree-trunk legs to drive him across the court to hit groundstrokes with such power, they often tip past the tape. In fact at the U.S. Open, Younes El Aynaoui good-naturedly shook his finger at him when yet another ball dribbled over.

At the same time, Nadal has incredible touch at the net, which explains, in part, why he was nearly perfect at the net, winning 13 of 14 points, while Federer was 8-of-17 at the net. Federer said he didn't come forward often enough, but that Nadal also factored in.

"It's definitely got something to do with his game, as well," Federer said. "He didn't allow me to. That's the way he played."

This from the man who up until this loss not only had 23-1 record for the year but also had only dropped seven sets.

Nadal, nicknamed "Rafa" by his countrymen, is from Manacor, Spain. When Nadal was five, his uncle, Toni Nadal, put a racket in his hand. He's still his coach, although he wasn't here for this victory. Jofre Porta, who usually coaches Carlos Moya, was filling in, although Nadal said he spoke to his uncle before the match. Another uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, was a soccer player for FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and the Spanish national team.

Nadal grew up playing on clay, and that's where he earned his first two victories against top-10 players, defeating fellow Spaniards Albert Costa in Monte Carlo and Moya in Hamburg. Nadal's defeat of Federer was his first against a top-10 player on a hard court.

In addition to playing well on hard courts and clay, Nadal is no slouch on grass. He reached the third round at Wimbledon, just missing the opportunity to become the second-youngest player to reach the men's singles round of 16 in the Open Era. Bjorn Borg holds the record.

At the U.S. Open, he lost the third-set tiebreak to El Aynaoui. He said at the time he just didn't believe he could win.

"This year, I have much more confidence and I know that I can play at that level, that I belong to the higher level of players."

Neverthelesss, he is still just a teenager. During an interview last week, a reporter caused him to blush when she caught him oogling Svetlana Kuznetsova.

But underneath is a young man growing in confidence with each new victory, as evidenced by his assurance about the next round against Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, who beat Nadal in their only previous meeting.

"It was the first time that I played against somebody who hit the ball so hard," Nadal said. "I think tomorrow is going to be different because now I'm used to these kind of players."

So far, they're not used to him.

"You never know what he will do next because he's very unpredictable," Federer said. "He will suddenly take a lot of risks. That's what he sometimes did and surprised me."

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor at ESPN.com.