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Nadal's ascension to world No. 1 ranking just the beginning

Rafael Nadal celebrated his ascension to the world No. 1 ranking by winning the gold medal in Beijing. Philippe HuguenAFP/Getty Images

He was a 15-year-old kid playing in his first ATP-level tournament, but already you could see the power -- that left arm was freakishly muscular, reminiscent of another lefty, Rod Laver -- the quickness, the ball-striking ability. Oh, and the hunger. It burned in his brown eyes with a startling intensity.

Rafael Nadal's first-round opponent on April 29, 2002, was Ramon Delgado of Paraguay, a legitimate pro ranked No. 81 in the world. Four years earlier, Delgado had stunned No. 1 Pete Sampras in the second round of the French Open (in straight sets). Playing in Mallorca, the sun-splashed Spanish island on which he was born, Nadal schooled Delgado 6-4, 6-4.

Benito Perez-Barbadillo, working for the ATP communications department that week, had heard about Nadal. Earlier that year, in Kitzbuhel, Austria, Miguel Angel Nadal, a member of the Spanish national soccer team, had bragged to him about his nephew, saying he wanted to play professional tennis. Carlos Moya, Nadal's mentor, a French Open champion and fellow Mallorcan, also had talked him up. Still, Perez-Barbadillo wasn't fully prepared for the complete player he saw defeat Delgado.

"Here's this little kid, beating this 20-something guy, one very solid pro," Perez-Barbadillo said recently from his office in Monte Carlo, Monaco. "The thing I remember is that his serve was not working that great. But the movement, the shots. He was really good.

"And you could see he really wanted to win."

Nadal lost his second-round match, to Olivier Rochus of Belgium, but he soon proved to be a Mozartian prodigy. Rafa won his first Grand Slam, the 2005 French Open, a week after he turned 19. Six weeks later, he became the world's No. 2-ranked player, behind Roger Federer.

Now, at the age of 22, Nadal completes his long journey to the top of men's professional tennis with a freshly minted Olympic gold medal hanging around his neck. After sitting behind Federer for a record 160 consecutive weeks -- Nadal has been No. 2 longer than it took him to reach that spot from No. 466 -- he is finally No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

Nadal has taken every opportunity to downplay his displacement of Federer.

"I feel happy because, for sure, to be No. 1 is hard work from a long, long time ago," Nadal said in Cincinnati after his elevation was guaranteed. "But no time to be excited and be happy and enjoy. I am in a good [position.] The goal is only continuing playing like this and continuing to improve my tennis, to have chances to continue winning important tournaments on this surface."

Perez-Barbadillo, now Rafa's confidant and press agent, confirms that the No. 1 ranking is not Nadal's driving motivation.

"Every tennis player wants to be No. 1 player, yes," Perez-Barbadillo said. "But the way he thinks is, 'If I win big titles, the ranking comes with that.' He knows that titles are what really will mark his career.

"If you have a No. 1 like Roger Federer in front of you, you have to understand there is nothing more you can do. I remember him saying once that he was the No. 1 player in the world. I said, 'What do you mean?'

"He said, 'Roger Federer is from another world.'"

Todd Martin, a two-time Grand Slam finalist, admitted he was slightly surprised by Nadal's ultimate ascension.

"A year ago the discussion was what happens first -- will Nadal reach No. 1, or will [Novak] Djokovic become No. 2?" said Martin, who will play some senior singles matches at the U.S. Open. "I thought Djokovic would make the run before Nadal. I bought into some of the weaknesses that Rafael showed in the second half of 2007. I also thought losing to [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga at the Australian Open would hurt him more than it did.

"At the core of it, he has the greatest weapon in the game -- that's his heart. His heart, I think, dictates how good his focus is on a day-to-day, point-to-point basis. His heart is so in it, his mind is never out of it."

Nadal, at 22 years, 2 months and 2 weeks, is more than three months younger than Federer was when he became No. 1. Nadal has already won five Grand Slam singles titles -- four French Opens and one at Wimbledon. At his exact age, Federer had only one.

Powerful prodigy

Sixteen months after his first ATP-level victory, Nadal came to New York for the 2003 U.S. Open. Spectators, eating ice cream and sipping drinks, watched Carlos Moya hitting balls on Practice Court 5. Golfer Sergio Garcia, a good friend of the Spaniard's, worked the baseline as a ball boy. Onlookers paid little attention to Moya's practice partner, the strapping kid with long brown hair on the other side of the net. But who was the guy consistently outhitting the 1998 French Open champion?

Seventeen-year-old Rafael Nadal.

Yes, the very player who earlier that year qualified his way into the main draw at Hamburg, then beat his idol, Moya, in the first round.

Nadal won his first-round match at the U.S. Open in straight sets over Fernando Vicente, but lost to the eccentric Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui, also in straights -- but Rafa pushed him to two tiebreakers. On one point, Nadal whiffed on an overhead with his back to the net, then sprinted past the baseline, whirled, and hit a spectacular forehand winner. El Aynaoui could only shake his head and throw him a thumbs-up.

"I knew Rafa would become No. 1 sooner or later," Moya said two weeks ago in Los Angeles. "I can't say that I really helped Rafa so much, maybe a bit when I was 24 and practicing with him. That motivated me -- you don't want to lose to a kid. He's helped me to be a better player by his intensity in training and his desire."

"After he won Wimbledon, it doesn't matter what the rankings say," said Paul Annacone, the men's head coach for Great Britain's Lawn Tennis
Association, "that guy with two Slams [this year] is probably the No. 1 player in the world. He's relentless about his improvement. He's checked all the clich├ęd boxes to get better. It's amazing how diligent he is."

Nadal was always a natural on clay, but he quickly adapted his game of attrition to the slippery slope of grass, a surface on which the ball skids and footing can be treacherous. He forced himself out of his clay comfort zone, and learned to be more offensive and take greater risks.

He reached the finals at the All England Club in 2006 and 2007, losing to Federer both times, but then broke through with an epic victory back in July. Nadal prevailed in a breathtaking five-set final that was the longest (4 hours, 48 minutes) and, what many believe, the best in Wimbledon history.

While Nadal has mastered clay, and now grass, he had struggled -- in light of his success, it's a highly relative term -- on hard courts. At least until he won nine straight matches in the hard-court heat of ATP Masters Series events in Toronto and Cincinnati, running his consecutive match victory total to 32. He took the title in Canada, but looked exhausted in losing to Djokovic in the Cincinnati semifinals.

Even in defeat, Martin was impressed with Nadal.

"He's so invested in every single second he's on the tennis court," Martin observed. "He missed one particular volley against Djokovic. He doesn't miss volleys he should make, and this one to me was a focus error, a count-your-chickens-before-they-hatch error.

"Rafael is the only guy who I'd notice, watching from my sofa, that specific error. His eyes are absolutely wide for every ball that comes his way. He's 100 percent ready to play every day, which is astonishing."

Nadal, however, vindicated that loss to Djokovic, defeating the Serb in the Olympic semifinals. Nadal, fittingly, then took Fernando Gonzalez down in the final, becoming the first Spanish player to capture Olympic gold.

Men's tennis has been remarkably stable at the very top. In the three years that Federer and Nadal have been 1-2, the No. 1 spot in the women's game has changed no fewer than 13 times -- and featured seven different players. But now, the men's world order changes.

Federer will not likely equal Sampras' record of finishing six straight years at No. 1 (1993 to 1998). With Federer chaffing at his second-class status, and inevitable pressure from the hard-charging Djokovic, how long will Nadal reign?

More than likely, not as long as Federer's record 237 weeks. Nadal played 85 matches last year, second only to Djokovic's 87. Through the Olympics, a victim of his own success, he had logged a staggering 78 matches -- 17 more than anyone else.

When Nadal unleashes a forehand -- Andy Murray calls it the "heaviest ball in tennis" -- you wonder if his muscles and tendons will survive the effort.

"I'm not so concerned about the way he hits ball, it's the way he moves and body type he has,'' said Annacone, who coached Sampras for eight years. "He's a big, huge, strong athlete, but there's a lot of muscle mass to carry around. Like Boris Becker, he's big and he's doing all that stopping and starting, pounding side to side.

"The guys that reach that level the most efficiently and easily tend to have the longevity. That's Roger and Pete [Sampras] and Andre [Agassi], to an extent. Rafa can play at really high levels. But it takes more out of him to do so. I'd say he is incrementally more vulnerable than someone like a Federer."

Said Martin, "I just don't think Roger's going away. I've never bought into the idea that this is the beginning of the swan song. He needs to ask some pretty tough questions of himself. Is he willing to do what's necessary to again improve more than Nadal and the others?

"Rafael staying at No. 1, it's not so much a tennis question as a math answer. He'll have to sustain a level of play on the hard courts that he hasn't shown yet. The first six months of the year he dominated on two surfaces. He has to prove he's at least the second-best on hard courts in the world."

This historic vulnerability will be the leading story line at next week's U.S. Open.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.