On June 3 2005, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played each other for the first time at a Grand Slam. Nadal was celebrating his 19th birthday on the day, and was in the semi-finals of his first French Open up against the world No 1 player.
It wasn’t an easy match to predict, even though the teenager was playing his first Roland Garros while the top seed already had four Grand Slam titles. But it was Nadal who prevailed, starting one of the greatest runs at a Grand Slam in tennis history. After reaching and winning his first final at Roland Garros in 2005, Nadal would play and win 11 more titles in the next 14 years, breaking numerous records along the way.
At 18, Nadal had already blazed through the European clay that summer. The Spaniard, who was in the middle of a 22-match winning streak on clay and halfway through what would be a breakthrough season for him, needed four sets to beat the Swiss 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. It was the start of a heavily lopsided rivalry on clay which would see Federer lose four French Open finals to his younger rival. It was a sign of the incredible dominance Nadal would have on clay, especially in Paris.
In a way, it has always seemed quite fitting that Nadal celebrates his birthday midway through the French Open (in its traditional slot, at least.) The clay at Roland Garros is his fiefdom after all, where he has a mind-boggling 93-2 record.
Pause, rewind, play
Relive epic moments, rare interviews and more from the world of sport.
And a lot has to do with that first birthday on terre battue as he subdued Federer, against whom he had a 1-1 head-to-head at the time. The Swiss had beaten him in a tough five-setter at Miami earlier that year to avenge his 2004 loss.
On that day in Paris, they split the first two sets, Nadal took the third and Federer broke for a 3-1 lead in the fourth. But that’s when the left-hander leveled up and won the last five games. Federer would never stretch Nadal beyond four sets in any of their meeting in Paris, the latest being the 2019 semi-final.
Fifteen years later, we all now know how that was one of the matches that sparked a great rivalry and launched the careers of one of the greatest of all times.
Incidentally, Nadal was making his French Open debut only in 2005 because he had to pull out in 2003 and 2004 due to injuries to his elbow and left ankle. In a way, that cloud of injury affected his performance even before he won his first Major.
But when have injuries stopped Nadal from winning big?
The Spaniard had already made a mark on the surface winning his first six ATP World Tour titles, all on clay, from 2004.
But 2005 was the year Nadal, the baby-faced, long-haired teen who would go on to become ‘King of Clay’, held his first royal court. In his breakthrough season he won 11 titles – including his first Major and Masters – and eight of them came on clay (Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Monte Carlo Masters, Barcelona, Rome Masters, the French Open, Bastad and Stuttgart.)
He was just 18 years old when he beat the 2004 and 2003 Roland-Garros champions, Gaston Gaudio in Monte Carlo and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final in Barcelona, as he lifted three straight titles on clay before French Open.
From April, the left-hander began his record-breaking run on the surface that would stretch to 81 consecutive matches won, ending only in 2007 against Federer at Hamburg.
With a 17-match streak on clay and wins against the top players, he came into his first Roland Garros as a favourite already. Seeded fourth (Federer, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin the top three) he beat the likes of David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet – then the top rising stars – before the semis against Federer and final against Puerta.
Interestingly, Nadal played his first match on the outside courts, which would be his first and last appearance on No 1 Court. He has played all his matches on the main courts since.
But clay was not the only surface he shone on, ending the year with hard court victories in Canada, Beijing and Madrid. That success reflected in the rankings as he finished the season as the world No 2.
From that 2005 season, Nadal has gone from strength to strength, across surfaces and in the toughest era of the sport. He won his first Wimbledon in 2008 (completing his first Channel Slam), won Australian Open the next year and US Open the following year in 2010 to become the youngest male player to complete a Career Slam at 24. With his singles gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he also became just the second male player to win a Career Golden Slam.
As of his 34th birthday in 2020, 15 years since his first Slam match against Federer, he now has the second-most men’s singles Grand Slam in history along with a record 35 ATP Tour Masters 1000 titles. This includes an unprecedented 12 French Open titles, 11 Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open trophies, nine Rome Masters and five Madrid Masters. He’s also the only person to win the “Clay Slam”, taking Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, French Open in one year.
It’s hard to imagine that any player in the future will come close to the level of Nadal’s dominance on clay, a surface he has dominated from his teen years to now in his mid-30s.