14 years ago Rafael Nadal met Richard Gasquet for the first time in French town Tarbes. They were only 13. Rafa was emerging as a tennis virtuoso with an under-12 regional championship already in his trophy case at age eight, and added Spanish and European titles by age 12. And yet he was just another dirtballer compared to Gasquet, heralded in his home country as the Mozart of the sport; he was so universally marveled at in France that Tennis magazine featured him on their cover, at age 9, under the headline “The Champion That France Is Waiting For?”
The country was counting down the seconds by the third set of the quarterfinals of Les Petits As, a hardcourt under-14 tournament that is more or less the western European version of the USTA boys national championship. Nadal was down 7-6, 3-6, 4-5 and serving to stay in a match that had all the trappings of a major event: a capacity crowd, advertisements all over the court, and two kids swinging from their shoe tops. The only thing missing was the bass in the grunts.
Rafa’s lassoing lefty forehand (a stroke he switched from the right side at the insistence of his uncle, Toni, who still coaches him) and Gasquet’s full extension one-handed backhand—peaked through. “He was already running so much,” Gasquet recalled. “I told my father after, ‘He’s a big fighter.'”
In the end, though, it was Gasquet’s forehand that did Nadal in. At 15-40, he ripped one down the line and then ripped another to take the title as the crowd roared. The jubilation was not to last, though, not if Nadal had anything to say about it. He vowed to come back and avenge his quarterfinals lost. The next year he won the whole tournament.
Since the toothpick-figures turned pro, the rivalry between the two 27-year-olds has been more of the nail-hammer variety. Nadal hasn’t just held the upper hand on Gasquet; he hasn’t stopped squeezing. The Spaniard enters their semifinal matchup with the Frenchman, which goes down on Friday, on a 10-0 lifetime streak.