All roads lead to Rome. So the saying goes. But none of them are easy or even navigable in the final analysis.
The prize at the end of the journey in 2006 for Roger Federer was a trophy to make him a winner at the Rome Masters for the first time in his career and, in the process, allow him to have an edge as he entered the draw at the 2006 French Open.
All the Swiss had to do to secure the victory was circumvent a 19-year-old world No. 2 Rafael Nadal who, according to the media, sported a new crown—King of the Clay-Courters.
In 2005, Nadal had upset Federer in the semifinals of the French Open, going on to secure his first French Open Championship—his first Grand Slam, as a matter of fact.
Just prior to Rome in 2006, Federer had been bulldozed by Nadal in the finals of Monte Carlo, playing what most would deem a subpar match for the mighty Swiss warrior. So far in 2006, Federer had lost two matches, both to Nadal. The world No. 2 had also bested Federer in the finals at Dubai.
In 2006, Federer was determined to win one of the Masters Shields that had eluded him so far in his stellar career. The man on the other side of the net was Nadal, and the Swiss Maestro knew it would be an all-out war this time.
Federer was not going to let the teenage wunderkind run over him again in another clay-court final, as Nadal had in Monte Carlo. Both men were psyched for the match, although only the teenager from Majorca bounced about like fictitious Tigger during the coin toss.
The resulting match played that afternoon in Rome in 2006 remains a classic—perhaps one of the best, most tightly contested matches ever played on the red dirt...or any surface. It lasted just over five hours, and the shot-making was brilliant at times as the players fought for supremacy.
Like the tides, Nadal and Federer ebbed and flowed during the match, each finding picture-perfect form for a time, then losing ground, regrouping, and waiting for the next swell to propel them into the lead.
The match began with Federer riding the high tide, seizing an early break. Nadal, however, broke back. Eventually after trading what seemed endless groundstrokes, the set ended in tie-break.
With the finish line firmly in sight, the Swiss battered Nadal on the rocks, taking the tiebreak at love, 7-0. An hour had passed, and all assembled hunkered down to watch the match of a lifetime.
Federer was playing first-rate tennis in the first set as Nadal managed, barely, to keep pace. The second set saw a continuation of the riveting play of set No. 1.
The crowd collapsed under the weight of “oohs and ahs” during one point in the first game of set No. 2, when Nadal, after chasing down a clever lob over his head, raced back and smacked a return between his legs that Federer pushed into the net as he stood poised for its flight.
Nadal’s play was improving just as Federer’s began to falter. After that acrobatic point, both players proceeded to hold serve all the way to a second-set tiebreaker where Federer’s mounting errors combined to cost him the tiebreak.
He hit a forehand approach shot that just missed long, and then in an attempt to pass Nadal, Federer sent a backhand into the net, losing the second-set tiebreak by a 5-7 margin. The two combatants were even at one set apiece, each with a tiebreak under his belt.
It was in the third set that Nadal’s game peaked at opportune moments as Federer’s floundered when it mattered. When the Majorcan broke Federer to go ahead 3-2, he was able to maintain that advantage throughout the set to win at 6-4. Nadal was on a roll, sweeping the Federer forehand aside.
Would the match end as it had in Monte Carlo, with Nadal claiming the title in four sets? The crowd seemed to sense that there was more action to come, and Federer did not disappoint them.
Once again riding the wave he rode in the first set, Federer stormed back, breaking Nadal twice in the fourth set to win 6-2, setting the stage for another five-set final.
In 2005, Nadal had defeated Guillermo Coria in a final fifth-set tie-breaker in five hours and 14 minutes—the longest final of the Open Era at that juncture. The Rome crowd was getting used to such glorious finals, and 2006 would prove to be another one.
Federer, feeling the ascendancy of his play, rocketed to a 4-1 lead in the fifth set. Any other human being would have felt that the curtain was about to fall—the fat lady was about to belt out another aria in B-flat.
But not Nadal. Nadal simply never quits until the final ball has been struck and the umpire says it is over, officially.
Nadal was serving, up 15-0, when Federer attempted a lob that sailed just long over Nadal’s head. The Majorcan went up 30-0 and celebrated the point by leaping into the air, throwing an invisible punch as if he had just turned the match around—while he still trailed Federer 1-4 in the final set.
Nadal went on to hold serve and then broke back in game No. 7, evening the set for the time being. Serving behind at 5-6, Nadal double-faulted for the first time in the match, giving Federer two match points at 15-40.
It looked to all assembled that the match would go to Federer, who had at a minimum two chances to close it out. The ball would be delivered to his forehand side—what more could the Swiss asked for?
The first forehand error sailed long by a fraction and the second found its way into the alley—leading to deuce and eventually to a tiebreak. It was entirely fitting that this match should be settled in a fifth-set tiebreaker. It deserved such an ending.
Federer, again, found his way to a 3-1 lead in the tiebreak, just as he had been in the second set. The crowd was not convinced this time that Federer would prevail. Still, when Federer went ahead 5-3, many leaned the Swiss star’s way.
That was when Federer’s forehand let him down again, evening the score. Finally, on his first match point, Nadal brought home the victory and repeated as champion in Rome.
Federer had played a superior match to the one in Monte Carlo where his own serve was broken seven times. He had managed to keep Nadal pinned in the backhand corner most of the match.
The Swiss also spent more time at the net, scoring on 39 of 55 trips. But Federer also led Nadal in errors, 89 to 60. Surprisingly, 54 of those errors were charged to Federer’s main weapon, his forehand.
That simply meant Federer was under more pressure and was going for more, trying to hit lines instead of simply playing the margins.
On that day Nadal equalled Guillermo Vilas’ record of 53 match wins on clay in the Open Era. Vilas accomplished that feat back in 1977. Federer’s match record fell to 39-3, with all of his losses in 2006 to Nadal. In fact, Nadal had beaten the Swiss in four straight meetings.
This match in Rome served to cement the rivalry that rages to this day, as many hope and pray that the two will meet again in Rome where a five-set final is now impossible since only three sets are required today. But even a three-set final would be welcomed.
No doubt that the rivalry came around at just the right moment in men’s tennis, because Federer was rolling over everybody else he faced. The tennis gods unveiled this tennis phenom from Majorca in time to offer an obstacle to the man from Switzerland.
Federer vs. Nadal matches have presented tennis fans with perhaps the greatest rivalry ever in men’s tennis.
Luckily for us all, it still rages on, and—if we are luckier still—it will rage on for years to come. Who knows how many more finals we will enjoy with Federer and Nadal playing full-out as they did in Rome in 2006?