Rafael Nadal tuned pro in 2001, at the age of 15, three years after deciding to pursue tennis over soccer. A decision his father forced in order to keep his academics a priority. The young Spaniard from Mallorca quickly found his footing, and began climbing the professional ranks. By December of 2002, Nadal had cracked the top 200 and began flashing his potential. The climb to the top 50 proved to be more difficult.
A straight-sets win over long-time rival, Roger Federer, proved to be a coming out party for the 17-year-old. Little did he know that the 2004 Miami Open match would be the first of 40 plus matches between the two. On March 28, he imposed his will on the world number one and dominated the match from start to finish with his forehand. It helped Nadal inch closer to making the top 10 in the world. Which he reached in late April of 2005, and hasn’t left since.
Nadal’s talent was no longer a secret. With his muscular physique, “catlike” quickness, and mega forehand, Rafa took the tennis world by storm. And he did so with fashion, sporting sleeveless shirts, capri pants and long curly hair. With his “all-out-all-the -time” style, he was a stark contrast to the suave Swiss in every facet. He was different and fans were fascinated.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, and Nadal is the oldest player to finish year-end world number one in the history of the ATP rankings. A remarkable feat at 33 given the miles on his knees, physical playing style, and injuries over the years. Nadal won 89.2% (58-7) of his matches this year, 6.1% higher than his career winning percentage (83.1%), the best winning percentage of the Open Era. (Second-best was Federer with a winning percentage of 84.1% <53-10>) He claimed two Masters 1000s titles, the French Open (12th), the U.S. Open (4th), and led Spain to its sixth Davis Cup title with an 8-0 record.
No one knows how much longer Nadal can sustain this ridiculous level of play late in his career, but he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down. His game is much more offensive now from the baseline, and he allows himself to miss aggressively, yet he’s still a human backboard. Nadal’s improved serving motion and seemingly forever improving volleys have been key to helping him end points and matches quicker, allowing him to stay fresher deeper into the year. As the 2020 season is just around the corner, he trails Roger Federer by just a single slam for the all-time record, a feat the King of Clay is likely salivating over.
Major Titles: 19
Career Prize Money: $119,601,561
Overall Record: 977-197
The Climb to #1
9/24/01 – 1002
8/12/02 – 466
12/09/02 – 200
7/14-03 – 56
4/25/05 – 7
7/25/05 – 2
8/25/08 – 1