Remembering Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer's Classic Match at 2006 Rome Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 14, 2014

Rome's Italian Open has produced many classic matches through the decades, but perhaps few as memorable or important as Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal in the 2006 final. Had it not been for their great Wimbledon matches in 2007-08, perhaps this jewel would not be overshadowed as one of the greatest matches of all time.

The match had it all. There was high tennis quality from both players, multiple comebacks, and a final climactic tiebreaker to settle the result. It was the essence of how both players established their greatness. It’s a time capsule that relives the spirit of the way they once were as rising champions.

In rewatching this classic, I took away a few more impressions and notes of why this rivalry peaked a couple years later. That part of tennis history is gone, even as we now watch them duel in their later years, but it still opens up old feelings.

This was broadcast on Sky Sports with commentators Mark Petchey and Leif Shiras. Comments they made during the broadcast will be noted. You may also view the match in its entirety, but be sure to set aside five hours.


First Set: Federer 7-6 (7-0)

Federer was 24 years old and at the peak of his powers. He had accumulated seven Grand Slam titles. Nadal was 19, the defending French Open champion and in the midst of his legendary 81-match winning streak on clay.

Petchey and Shiras both remind their tennis audience that this is a special meeting. “Save your ticket. This is one you stick on the mirror; it’s like watching Borg vs. McEnroe in 1980.”

It’s also a reminder that we haven’t since seen two young superstars controlling the tennis universe. We’ve watched them come of age, through their peaks and beyond. We’ve seen Novak Djokovic break through in 2011 to complete a triumvirate of power.

Prior to young Federer vs. Nadal, we have to go back to the 1990 U.S. Open with Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi in order to look at two emerging superstars that would change the face of tennis.

Federer misses two set points on Nadal’s serve, which would foreshadow the match’s outcome. But the Swiss genius roars back with a perfect tiebreaker, punctuated by enormous, air-tight forehands that streak only centimeters above the net. He widens the court and has Nadal scrambling for his life.

On the other side, Nadal has proven he is not afraid of Federer. He has won four of their five meetings to date, including two of three on hard courts.  Both players eye the other respectfully and have “locked in” to the match.


Second Set: Nadal 7-6 (7-5)

Petchey mentions that Nadal is looking to win his 53rd consecutive match on clay to tie Guillermo Vilas’ record from 1977. Vilas has already predicted that Nadal will shatter the record.

Petchey and Shiras then tell the story about how Vilas lost the streak against Ilie Nastase. The feisty Romanian, who was never one to hold back from any kind of edge, brought in a “spaghetti racket” that allowed him to hit soundlessly and with greater topspin. (See Geoff MacDonald’s NY Times blog for greater detail.) Vilas lost the first two sets of this match before walking off in protest. He later won another 23 matches. Had Vilas’ record stood at 77, it would still be short to Nadal’s 81, a streak finally halted by Federer at Hamburg in 2007.

Both players are holding serve with ease. It’s 4-4 and Shiras says that Federer needs more passion at opportune times, and that Nadal has more of it.

Next game, Federer is serving at 4-5. Nadal has a set point, but Federer saves it with a lunging backhand, more of stab-volley that had to pull a rocket from above his shoulder and delicately drop it crosscourt, inside the ad section and the one area out of reach to Nadal. Simply spectacular.

Their service games have been sharp.

Federer leads 4-2 in the tiebreaker. Then he misses in a long rally. He hits beyond the baseline in the next two points, holds for 5-5 and then hits another long ball. Is it just nerves or an inexplicably bad time to play loose?

Nadal has a second set point but he impatiently tries a bad push shot in approaching the net. He should have extended the rally, but no matter. Federer comes in with options but plunks it into the net.

Nadal celebrates with a huge fist pump all the way to his changeover chair. Federer walks dejectedly to his side.


Third Set: Nadal 6-4

Before each game Nadal bends straight over to adjust his socks. This is kind of a forgotten tic in lieu of the others that he has had over the years.

Federer plays a weak fifth game and now trails. He lacks energy all of a sudden. He doesn’t look like he enjoys tennis at all right now, as if he is being evaporated by the Spaniard’s growing intensity. Petchey and Shiras attack this angle like an important theme in literature that must be imbibed by all students.

Much is made about how Federer is at a disadvantage against Nadal because of the Spaniard's high topspin to the Swiss' backhand, but Federer’s poorer games are often when he is dispirited after frequent or costly errors. There are times he plays near-perfect tennis, but he can show human frustration when things break down. It’s just his way, and different than the ferocity of Nadal or the stoic pleasantness of Sampras.


Fourth Set: Federer 6-2

Federer nearly loses it all in the first game with silly errors and his glum posture. Petchey warns that the match will soon be over.

But Federer turns it around by saving a couple of breakpoints with outstanding forehands. You can see his confidence returning right there. His demeanor perks up and he feels as if he has escaped death by holding a game that seemed lost.

Nadal has often succeeded with a high first-serve percentage. It’s the Mats Wilander philosophy: Get the first serve in as much as possible, even routinely, and over five sets you will win. Of course Wilander, Nadal, Andre Agassi and Djokovic are champions who don’t depend heavily upon their serve to win big matches. They want to serve well, but prepare and trust that the baseline ground war will be their victory.

Oops. Nadal comes in and overtops the ball into the net.  “It’s so rare to see Nadal make an error,” Shiras remarks. “I think even Federer was surprised.”

Not coincidentally, Federer’s A-game is back. He looks happy, and is bouncing on his feet again. Such a difference from the first game when his will looked shot. Nadal is opening the door.

Nadal’s error sets up a breakpoint and he steps into the court when he anticipates a crosscourt shot. Federer then follows with a great forehand up the line. He takes the 3-1 lead and cruises behind the Fed-zone that he has now created.

Back then, Federer often overwhelmed his opponents in the first set. There were times they put up fights into the third set, but another Fed-zone was enough to force almost any opponent into panicked errors or outright submission. Nadal has always been the exception. He thrives on coming back.


Fifth Set: Nadal 7-6 (7-5)

Since 2004, Federer had claimed 26 titles in 38 tournaments as he traded blows with Nadal in the fifth set of the Rome final. There are no other superlatives to add to this math, unless you talk about Nadal’s clay-court numbers. And maybe this is why Federer and Nadal fans often launch verbal grenades at each other. If one fanbase claims their hero is untouchable, the other always has a justifiable reply.

It’s best to remember that both players have accomplished things that the other cannot do, or for that matter that no other player can do. Just appreciate it all.

Federer continues to pour it on. Another stab volley. An up-the-line forehand. Above all, there is always pressure from his forehand and he keeps coming in to the net to close off Nadal’s rhythm. He is dictating play and showing the kind of energy that seemed impossible one hour ago. He breaks Nadal for a 3-1 lead. “Genius has returned,” Shiras muses.

At 4-1, Federer battles through a line call he didn’t like. He survives three deuces and wins with bold shots. He gets his hold and does a mini-Lleyton Hewitt bark of “Come on!” Petchey says that this “would be one of his greatest victories.”

Federer is one point away from 5-2. Nadal becomes the aggressor on longer points and breaks with a Federer error.

It’s not that Nadal isn’t an aggressive player, but rather that he understands how to win. He is like a boa constrictor, squeezing his opponent into a slow but sure death. Why release the prey for a faster kill but a possible getaway? The point is that Nadal will play with more risk-aggressive when this is necessary to win. He makes this adjustment when he is losing because something must be done rather than shrink away.

Nadal’s game is not just about making fewer errors than Federer. On clay, he does dictate as much as Federer, but he does it with his grinding style. It is very much an offensive game plan and the results speak for themselves. He’s greater with more areas of his attack, defense and footwork. When he is up on Federer, he has the intelligence and physical strength to keep grinding to the finish line.

On the other side, Federer has to take more chances to win. Otherwise he has no chance against Nadal. And make no mistake about it, Federer’s errors are usually forced by Nadal.

It’s the ninth game and Federer has won 60 of 78 points at the net.

So, yes, coach Stefan Edberg is not looking to create a brand new Federer, but to have him polish off some of what he did when he was younger. Of course Federer is more experienced and probably better able to execute percentage tennis now, although his physical peak has past. And there are certainly more baseline players and champions in 2014 that can make him pay if his execution is not excellent.

The moment has finally come. Federer has Nadal serving at 5-6 and 15-40. Two match (championship) points! This all coming after Nadal has come undone with a double fault and a long forehand.

Federer and Nadal rally, but Federer loses the first match point hitting his forehand long.

Federer then seems to have an opening in his next rally and he goes for the win with an up-the-line forehand...that misses on the deuce sideline. No regret there. He risked the win, but was inches wide. It is the right shot, but not precise enough this time. (Ironically enough, Federer could have used Nadal's banana-curve forehand in this instance. This is a shot Nadal would have made in this ad-court position.)

Nadal has new life. At deuce, he outmuscles Federer and hits a terrific backhand to take the point. Then he bludgeons an inside-out forehand for an easy winner. Time for a tiebreaker.

There’s no quit in either player. Federer comes right back and controls things at 3-1, 4-2 and 5-3. And then he tightens up.

Federer doesn’t bend down enough on a short return by Nadal and pushes it into the net coming in, and now 5-4.

Nadal outslugs Federer by moving him deep from corner to corner. Finally, Federer shanks a forehand and the match is leveled for the last time at 5-5.

Nadal lobs in a deep serve up the middle and Federer, in his deuce court, meets it with his backhand and sails in high into the air and well past the baseline. Match point for Nadal.

Federer is serving, and Nadal quickly gets the rally in his favor, again moving Federer deep and side to side before Federer sails another long forehand. “He’s done it again,” Petchey says. “He’s broken Federer’s heart.”

What else can be said for both players? Federer nearly pulled off three of five sets on clay, but teenage Nadal summoned up his indomitable spirit and clutch play. It was his already his 16th career title.

Both players would pull out of Hamburg due to fatigue. Nadal and Federer would meet for another blockbuster in the French Open final, and once again Federer would take the first set. But Nadal would sweep the next three sets and win his second consecutive French Open title, and he would reinforce his dominance on clay.

Would this match have made a difference for Federer had he won? Would he have gone on to win the 2006 French Open title behind more confidence? Could he have changed history?

It’s interesting speculation, but very doubtful. After all, Nadal has a way of bouncing back from tough losses, and it may have actually been more difficult for Nadal to deal with the pressure of winning with his clay-court streak on the line.

For contrast, in 2007, Nadal would lose to Federer in Hamburg and the streak was over. But Nadal crushed Federer in the 2007 French Open final.

There’s no reason to think the 2006 French Open would have had a different result, had Federer held on for the Rome title. But Rome would have been a special title for Federer. And it was a special title for Nadal.


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