Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's always fun to take a look at the future of tennis, and in this case we'll tap into Spanish lefty Rafael Nadal.
The 17-year-old prodigy has all the required power strokes and will head into 2004 ranked an impressive 49th in the world. Nadal jumped 188 spots in the rankings this year after finishing 2002 at No. 235. Only three other men enjoyed greater movement in the rankings in 2003 -- France's Thierry Ascione (455 spots) and Russians Dmitry Tursunov (233) and Igor Andreev (196).
Nadal enjoyed a great deal of success at both the Challenger and ATP levels in '03, as he finished inside the top 100 of the Entry Rankings for the first time in his blossoming career and was practically everybody's pick as newcomer of the year.
Two of his biggest victories came at the expense of fellow Spaniards Carlos Moya and Albert Costa, a pair of former French Open champs. His mentor Moya was a former world No. 1 and captured Roland Garros in 1998, while Costa was the reigning French Open titlist (at the time) when he gave way to Nadal on the red clay at the Monte Carlo Masters.
The 6-foot, 165-pound Nadal also stunned popular Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui (the current world No. 14 star) in Bastad, Sweden and the rapidly-rising southpaw already has a respectable 15-12 career singles record, including a 14-11 mark this past season. He has yet to record a singles title on the circuit, but did capture his first doubles crown (alongside compatriot Alex Lopez Moron) in Umag, Croatia. The aforementioned Moya ultimately captured the singles portion in Umag, including a victory over Nadal in the semis -- Nadal's first-ever trip into an ATP final four. The following week, Nadal titled in a Challenger tourney on home soil in Segovia, Spain, giving him his second Challenger championship of the year to go along with one he secured in Barletta, Italy while he was still a 16-year-old back in March.
The 17-year-old Nadal is currently ranked 49th in the world.
Nadal made his Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon and promptly became the youngest player to reach the third round at the venerable All England Club since a 16- year-old Boris Becker turned the trick back in 1984.
Unfortunately, the Manacor, Mallorca native closed out his '03 campaign with four straight losses in ATP action, but don't expect too many four-match losing streaks from this promising youngster. Combine him with the likes of reigning French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tommy Robredo and Feliciano Lopez, and the Spaniards should account for a good portion of the top 25 or so stars for the next several years. The up-and-coming Lopez, like Nadal, is also a lefthander.
Nadal plays with the maturity to match his tremendous ability and appears to have a solid game on all surfaces -- something you can't say about too many players. His top-50 finish in '03 marked the first one by a 17-year-old in more than a decade.
Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt said, "He [Nadal] is carved from a very special kind of wood. He is on the threshold of a great career."
Nadal's future is so bright he may have to wear shades.