Carlos Moya was presented with a chance to make history at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati 20 years ago and he grabbed it with both hands. The former No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings captured the crown at the ATP Masters 1000, something no other Spaniard had done before him. In the summer of 2002, the Mallorcan beat World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt 7-5, 7-6 (5) to achieve his feat from him. A glass ceiling had been smashed by a player who was brave, determined and, above all, ready to pounce when opportunity knocked.
It was 11 August 2002 and sport threw up a conundrum that Moya was more than ready to solve.
He had made his way through a draw that was at the mercy of his forehand, a stroke that, with the aid of the Ohio sun, was capable of bringing any player to his knees. It proved too much for French player Ciryl Saulnier and the Dutch Sjeng Schalken, before the American Michael Chang and German Rainer Schuettler also succumbed to its venom. In the semi-final, Juan Carlos Ferrero, just a 22-year-old on his way to the elite, was unable to deal with the barrage.
However, on the day of the final, Cincinnati was about to throw a curveball.
A summer tournament whose intense sunshine would habitually test the fitness of players to the limit had clouded over from one day to the next. As dawn broke, it was considerably overcast, the mercury had plummeted and the water that had been so sought-after during the days of scorching heat, was threatening to fall from the sky. For the players, affected as they are by the impact of temperature on the behavior of tennis balls, it was a complete game changer.
Just one step from the trophy, and Moya was in trouble. On the other side of the net was the World No. 1; the Australian Lleyton Hewitt. Things did not look good. Moya had to take it to the best player on the planet, a player who was lightning quick and whose legs he never tired. A player whose flat ball was deadened on a humid day. The Spaniard would have to stop a man who, just a few weeks earlier had won Wimbledon from the baseline. Standing on the other side of the net was an impenetrable wall.
“Before the match began I was convinced I could win it. But once we started to play I wasn’t really feeling the ball. The conditions were completely different from the previous days,” Moya recalled at the time. “I’d been playing in a lot of sun and heat. I had the feeling that the ball wasn’t bouncing as high. My serve wasn’t helping me so much. Also, there was wind. It takes time to adjust to those conditions.”
The early exchanges were an indication of the scale of the mountain he had to climb. Moya and Hewitt were embroiled in a physical battle, where the Spaniard’s looping shots, so dangerous under a blue sky, were barely caressing the Australian’s armor. At 4-4, in the heat of the battle, the skies opened and the match was stopped for two hours, splitting one of the year’s most important clashes in two.
Having failed to dent the confidence of his adversary, Moya realized he now had an opportunity. Rain meant time; time to put together a plan.
“When the rain came, I left for the locker room, where I started watching the replay of the match,” said the Spaniard at the time. “That’s when I realized that I wasn’t hitting the ball very hard. I could see it on TV. I told myself ‘I’m in the final because I’ve taken so many risks, because I’ve been hitting the ball really hard. That’s all I have to do!’ After the rain, I was in no doubt about the path I had to take and it worked pretty well for me.”
Instead of giving in to exhaustion after an intense US swing and in a match where every ounce of strength would be key, Moya set about studying exactly what was happening.
“It wasn’t the rain that helped me, it was seeing the replay. I was putting too much topspin on my forehand, but that didn’t bother him because the ball wasn’t kicking up,” he explained. “I decided to go on the attack, to play flatter and look for winners. To try and approach the net and make the points shorter.”
Putting his plan into action, Carlos managed to take the first set. Suddenly the final was his to lose. But then things took a turn for the worse. Hewitt dominated the second set to take a 5-2 lead, a huge advantage in the hands of the world’s best player. Clinging to his new tactics, Moya found two service breaks and let slip two set points, before embarking on an unforgettable tiebreak.
“I thought we were going to a third,” Moya said. “It’s not easy to break back twice. But I decided to relax, I had nothing to lose and I simply played my own game. I looked for winners and everything went wonderfully.”
Moya had defeated the best player in the world and, more importantly, dispelled any doubt that he was still up there himself. The win took him back into the Top 10, a place only within reach of players that have an x-factor, leaving behind the back injury he suffered in 1999, the year that he had reached No. 1 himself. It was a tough blow for a 22-year-old and the first serious setback in his career for him, also one that would see him drop outside the best 50 players in the rankings.
“Winning here puts me back in the Top 10, something that I have been waiting to do for three seasons, since I was injured. It’s taken me a while to recover, but now I’m playing pretty well again,” recognized a Moya, whose hunger to get back to winning ways knew no bounds. “In my best season, I’d won two titles, before coming here I’d already claimed three, so it was a good year at that point. After this week, it’s excellent. My goal was to get back in the Top 10 and I’ve done it.
“I wasn’t expecting to win the tournament because, although I was playing well, there are many players who are performing well. Hard court is not my favorite surface, but I can adapt to it. It’s a huge surprise to me winning this tournament.”
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His return to the elite hardened the mind of a player who was destined to make history in Spanish tennis. He had suffered the sour taste of being forced to take a step backwards, but now he was back and ready to savor the moment.
“This year, I’ve learned that you just have to enjoy yourself in court. When you have a tough moment, you have to think that the good ones won’t take long to happen. That’s all,” I explained. “I just want to enjoy the court, that’s the most important thing to me. Feeling healthy, fit. Now I know I’m healthy and ready. When this happens, I know I can be a dangerous player. I haven’t forgotten how to play tennis, even though I’ve been injured for a while. I wasn’t expecting to return to the Top 10, I knew that it would be a tough journey to take. But here I am again.”
The Spaniard, who had taken the titles in Bastad and Umag and come close in Sopot before his breakthrough in Cincinnati, was firing on all cylinders once again with his explosive tennis.
“It’s been a very successful period because I’ve won three tournaments and reached a semi-final in five weeks,” Moya said. “If anyone had told me that a month and a half ago, I would have said they were crazy. But everything is possible for me. If I’m lucky, I can play well and win any tournament.”
The win in Cincinnati, where there had been no Spanish champions in its 104-year history, meant that Carlos had set a new record. The first No. 1 in Spanish tennis, a figurehead for so many, had once again raised the bar where it seemed impossible.
“We’re not talking about a small tournament. This is a Masters Series,” Moya added. “It’s very important to me. I am very proud to be the first Spaniard to achieve various things. This is another one for me. And I feel very happy.”