(Editor's Note: This article was originally published in October 2012.)
It appears that, after six months on the sidelines, Rafael Nadal will return to a tennis court by the end of 2012. When his debut will be is still up in the air. Yesterday we heard that he’s scheduled to play an exhibition in Abu Dhabi on December 27. Today his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, said it’s possible that Rafa will be back sooner, but that sounds like a long shot.
How will he do when he comes back? I have some thoughts about his immediate future over at ESPN.com. Here I’ll cover a little of Rafa’s past. The clip above shows Nadal and Richard Gasquet, each at 13 years old (I’m guessing the year is 1999), playing the final of the Les Petits As (Little Aces) tournament in Tarbes, France. The video covers the long final game, where an exhausted Gasquet finally breaks a staggering Rafa to win 6-7, 6-3, 6-4. Here are some notes on this glimpse of the seemingly impossible past:
—Nadal was born on June 3, 1986; Gasquet was born two weeks later, on June 18. They were rivals to a degree, though Nadal didn’t play as much junior tennis as Gasquet. It was Little Richard G., French tennis magazine cover boy at age 9, who was the better-known prodigy. Two years after this clip, he became the No. 1 junior in the world. Six years later, Nadal would beat Roger Federer on his way to winning his first French Open.
—I’ve read that one of the reasons that Nadal hurt his foot (and missed the French Open) in 2004 was that he didn’t want to retire against Gasquet in Estoril, because he had retired against him in a match the previous year. Either way, he hasn’t had much to worry about from Reeshard as a pro. Nadal is 10-1 in their head to head, his only loss the retirement in 2003. Nadal hasn’t a lost a set to him in their last five matches.
—Back in 1999, you wouldn’t have thought the rivalry would go that way, at least on the surface. Not only does Little Ace Gasquet win this match, he’s the more developed 13-year-old. The backhand in particular is unmistakable.
Nadal’s serve is rudimentary—he and Toni might have been right when they said that he had the worst serve on the entire tour when he started as a pro. And his forehand volley, from the evidence here, is hacker level. But the backhand ground stroke is stronger than I would have thought, and the hook topspin forehand was already in place. The one he hits cross court, into the corner, on the run, is pretty amazing for a 13-year-old.
—More important, though, if you look closely you can see the seeds of what made Nadal a better player in the long run: Court sense. Even more than he normally does today, Rafa moves forward whenever he has an opening, or whenever he pushes Gasquet away from the middle of the court. On the other side of the net, Gasquet stays rooted behind the baseline, the spot where still spends most of his time today.
—This must have been a huge junior event. There are sponsor signs, the stands are fairly full, people are clapping in unison, and the Little Aces have their own ball kids and chair umpire.
—Nadal had the court sense, but he obviously didn’t have the physique yet. The biggest change, from what I can see, wasn’t in his body itself, but in his body language. Here he drags himself around, distracted, head hanging, shirt untucked, like any other kid his age. In this game, we don’t see much in the way of his famous rituals (maybe he was too tired to go through them) or any conscious control of the tempo, a lesson that may have come later. It’s hard to believe, but the young Rafa played too fast.
—There are a lot of impressive teenage players; you see them on every other court at the Bollettieri Academy. But not many junior tournaments, no matter how prestigious, feature a final with two future Top 10 players. What made these guys special? With hindsight, I’d say it’s that they weren’t just consistent. Each could create with their shots. That’s rare for any juniors, let alone 13-year-olds.
—With Rafa returning, and Gasquet playing some decent tennis recently—better even than he did at 13—maybe we’ll see them produce a match as close as this one soon.