Reviewing his defeat in straight sets by Rafael Nadal in the third round of the Nasdaq Open here, Roger Federer, the Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and world No 1, smiled philosophically and said: "He hit some really incredible shots. That's what youngsters do." Nadal is 17, Federer all of 22.
The aggressive Spanish prodigy caught Federer groggy, and, as you would expect of a nephew of the former football international Miguel Angel Nadal, "The Beast of Barcelona", if you are not on your toes, he will flatten you.
Since defeating Britain's Tim Henman in the final of the Masters Series event in Indian Wells a week earlier, Federer had spent most of his time recovering from sunstroke. He was unable to practise until the day before his opening match against the Russian Nikolay Davydenko, and was lucky to win in three sets on a blustery evening.
Twenty-four hours later, Federer was ill-prepared for his first encounter with Nadal, a tall, fast left-hander whose serve was potent and consistent and who was able to vary his shot-making from wickedly whipped angled topspin ground-strokes to superbly crafted drop-shots and lobs.
Nadal's victory on Sunday night, 6-3, 6-3, after 69 minutes, ceased to be a surprise from the moment he broke Federer in the fifth game of the opening set. Primed to become only the second player to beat Federer this year - Henman was the first, in the quarter-finals in Rotterdam last month - Nadal executed in style.
Though obviously excited, the Majorcan responded to his success with an impressive mixture of euphoria, modesty and realism. "I played one of the best matches in my life," he said. "Obviously [Federer] didn't play his best tennis, and that's the reason why I could win. If he had played his best tennis, I would have had no chance."
Nadal, who turns 18 at the French Open in June, is in his second season on the ATP Tour and is already ranked No 34. Last year he defeated two of his leading countrymen on clay, Albert Costa, in Monte Carlo, and Carlos Moya, in Hamburg. Three months ago, he advanced to his first ATP final, in Auckland, losing to Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, since when he has also made his mark as a Davis Cup player.
Federer said Nadal's fighting spirit and all-court speed reminded him of the Australian Lleyton Hewitt at the same age. "The start to [Nadal's] career has been incredible," the stylish Swiss said. "He was the better player today, I couldn't play the way I wanted to. My reactions weren't there. I've been sick and my preparation for this tournament was imperfect."
As they walked on court, Federer recalled, Nadal seemed shy. "He looked at me as if I was an incredible, great player, more a level of respect than nerves. He's a young player who will suddenly take a lot of risks. He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard, but with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce high."
Asked about Nadal's potential, Federer said: "He's put a lot of hard work into his game. We all remember when we were 17. We already felt we were great players. Then you're around for a few years and you feel you have proven to everybody that you are a good player. It's a totally different view of the game.
"I think the first three years especially are interesting. I think [Nadal] is enjoying his tennis. That's exactly what he should do. We'll see how strong he is in two years."
Nadal is now flexing before playing the hard-hitting Chilean Fernando Gonzalez for a place in the quarter-finals. Federer is leaving to join his Davis Cup team-mates in Lausanne to prepare for the tie against France over the Easter weekend.Reuse content