Rafa vs. Roger, The Match That Cemented Their Rivalry
Ten years ago, Federer and Nadal contested a memorable Rome final that cemented their rivalry and emphasised their status as the sport's greatest stars.
Federer, already considered an all-time great, was the dominant force on the ATP World Tour. But a teenager in a sleeveless top and pirate shorts, striking vicious forehands, had established a psychological advantage with victory over the World No. 1 in four of their previous five meetings.
As a result, the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on 14 May 2006 became terrific theatre, a 'must-see' for sports' lovers, let along fans, media and those closely associated with professional tennis.
"It was an unforgettable match, five hours and something," Nadal told ATPWorldTour.com. "It was an unbelievable comeback for me in the fifth. I think for both of us, it was a very, very high level. We enjoyed it and we had fun. Both of us had chances to win the match. For me it was great to be part of that match."
Federer told ATPWorldTour.com, "I remember the five-hour battle, the crowds were unbelievable. I also think the level of the match was big; Rafa and I were both at the top of our games."
Nadal had beaten Federer in a thrilling Monte-Carlo final three weeks earlier. Federer had remarked afterwards, "I've got to play aggressive. He leaves me no choice."
Throughout the Rome final, the Swiss adopted serve and volley tactics sparingly, punched precisely into the corners and followed his strokes to the net to keep Nadal off balance and leave the court wide open. "I worked my forehand way more than in Monaco," said Federer, who won 64 of his 84 points at the net. "I also did more with my backhand too."
Federer controlled play in the majority of the opening two sets, but out of the blue Nadal gained a set point opportunity when Federer served at 4-5, 30/40. Federer saved it with a terrific lunge volley, as Nadal looked certain to pass him down the line. When Federer lost a 4/2 lead in the tie-break, Nadal, undeterred, wrestled away the momentum.
Later, World No. 2 Nadal broke a net-rushing Federer with a backhand crosscourt pass at 2-2 in the third set and had chances to break early in the fourth, only to see Federer step up with forehand winners in the first game. Federer was off the hook and broke Nadal's serve at 1-2, when the Spaniard anticipated a cross-court stroke only to see Federer strike a forehand winner down the line.
Federer continued to attack and went on to gain a stranglehold at 4-1 in the fifth set. Nadal then started to hit his groundstrokes within one yard of the baseline and targeted Federer's single-handed backhand with his vicious topspin to work his way back into the match. But Federer's level did not drop in his 13th consecutive final appearance.
He held two championship points after Nadal hit the first double fault of the match at 5-6, 15/30. The Swiss squandered hit first opportunity with a backhand long, then rushed a forehand down the line to let Nadal off the hook. "I tried to hit a winner, why not?" said Federer, who finished on 89 unforced errors. "I didn't try to totally hit a winner, but tried to play aggressive and I was a little late on it. I couldn't get quite over the first point in time. I guess, the first match point cost me the match."
Despite the setback, Federer went on to lead 5/3 in the tie-break only to mis-hit a forehand for a three-point cushion. "He caught me right on the finish line," said Federer. Nadal went on to play nerve-free tennis to win four straight points, falling to the crushed brick at the end of a brutal, exciting five-hour and six-minute encounter. "It was more difficult for me to play against him here," said Nadal, who had not lost a clay-court match in more than 12 months. "It was a very emotional match... This one is special. It's unbelievable for me."
At 19 years of age, Nadal had tied Guillermo Vilas' Open Era record of 53 straight match wins on a clay, which had stood since an October 1977 loss in Aix-en-Provence to Ilie Nastase, who played with a subsequently outlawed spaghetti racquet. Nadal admitted, "Before each tournament, I'm always thinking, 'this week I’m going to lose.' But I have been lucky this year and won.” The win, Nadal's 13th straight final triumph, also tied Bjorn Borg’s record for 16 titles won as a teenager.
It had taken Nadal eight minutes longer to beat Guillermo Coria in the previous year's final, but the Spaniard's 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5) victory over Federer firmly cemented their rivalry for the ages.
Just as millions had done in years past for matches featuring Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, fans decisively took sides on 14 May 2006. Federer or Nadal, in support of their contrasting styles. Federer was the purists' favourite, a classicist, while Nadal was the relentless, physical fighter.
Two years later, Federer and Nadal pushed the bar even higher in the 2008 Wimbledon final, widely considered the sport's greatest match. "We played against each other on many occasions in a short period of time. It was a time when we met each other a lot in finals and Rome was one of the best, alongside the 2008 Wimbledon final," Federer told ATPWorldTour.com. Today, Nadal leads 23-11 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series.