Winning the Davis Cup crown at the end of 2004 with his teammates, an 18-year-old Rafael Nadal was ready to show his true colors in the following season. The youngster reached the fourth round at the Australian Open and won two ATP titles on clay before advancing into the first Masters 1000 final in Miami.
Rafa was two points away from beating Roger Federer in straight sets, wasting his chances and finishing runner-up, eager to change that in Monte Carlo. In the Principality, Nadal went all the way to claim the first Masters 1000 title, defeating Guillermo Coria in four sets to become the second-youngest champion at that level after Michael Chang in 1990.
A week later, the young Spaniard competed at home in Barcelona, using a favorable draw and ousting Juan Carlos Ferrero in the title match to crack the top-10 for the first time.
Carried by that momentum, Rafa made a debut in Rome (was injured in 2003 and 2004), entering the event as the title favorite and defeating Mikhail Youzhny 6-0, 6-2 in an hour for a winning start.
The Spaniard lost serve once and grabbed more than 60% of the return points, scoring six breaks to control the scoreboard and advance into the second round.
There, Rafa stayed on the court for 63 minutes against Victor Hanescu, ousting the Romanian 6-1, 6-1 with five breaks of serve, saving energy and delivering another strong triumph over Guillermo Canas for the place in the quarters.
“I’m playing good, winning the last two tournaments and making a strong start here in Rome. It’s never easy to find the rhythm in the opening match and I did that today. Youzhny is a good player, ranked 26th now and in the top-15 before the injury.
We played in Melbourne in January and I had to save a match point in the fourth set before prevailing in the fifth. Now, I scored more commanding victory, which is good for me physically. I didn’t feel tired against Radek.
I served for the opener at 5-4 and lost it, finding the range from set number two and bringing the victory home. I’m playing well but I can still improve my serve and control on both forehand and backhand. I’m happy on the court and that’s the winning formula.”
There, Stepanek won the opening set against Rafael Nadal who raised his level after that, dropping only two games in sets two and three to find himself in the semis. In the battle for the title match, Nadal would face another Spaniard David Ferrer.