On this day: Rafael Nadal edges Roger Federer on unique clay-grass court

In the spring of 2007, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had been the world’s best players for two years. Two great rivals were competing on a different level in comparison to all the opponents, dominating on their favorite surfaces like almost no one before them. Nadal had not lost on clay for surreal 72 matches (Roger would end that streak in the Hamburg final two weeks later). In contrast, Federer had won 48 consecutive encounters on grass since Mario Ancic took him down at Wimbledon 2002, adding four Wimbledon titles to his tally. With those numbers in mind, the idea emerged to see these two great giants in an unseen exhibition match. It was set for May 2 at Palma Arena in Palma de Mallorca, Nadal’s home island. It took 19 days and $1.63 million to create a special court that was never seen before, containing grass on the one half and clay on the other!

The encounter was almost canceled due to the problem with the surface, but it all went well in the end. After two hours and 29 minutes of entertaining battle, Nadal prevailed 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(10), repelling two match points in the decisive tie break to emerge as a winner in front of the home fans. It was a fascinating clash, both in terms of the result and the fact they had to change their shoes in the pauses between the games regarding the part of the court they were playing next. Nadal made a comfortable hold in the first game while hitting from the clay court, as it was easier to control the ball and attack the rival who had less time for reaction on the grass side.

Roger played against break points in his first service game despite hitting on the clay side, too, surviving them to avoid an early setback. Returning from clay in game four, Nadal broke with a beautiful backhand down the line winner to open up a 3-1 lead and held from the same side to extend the advantage after just 20 minutes. Roger pulled the break back in game seven while using the benefits of the clay court, with no more successful return games until the Swiss served to stay in the set at 5-6 from the grass court.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played on a unique court in May 2007.

Nadal played a fantastic game and broke Roger at love to take the opener 7-5 in 44 minutes, sealing the deal with a forehand crosscourt winner and hoping for more in the rest of the encounter. Federer forged an early lead at the beginning of the second set while returning from grass. He found a nice rhythm from both sides to stay in front. The Swiss clinched the set with a hold at love from clay in game ten to send the encounter into a decider after an hour and 22 minutes. Roger was a better player now. His serve looked more dangerous, and he had the upper hand from the baseline to keep the pressure on Rafa. The Spaniard opened the final set with a much-needed hold from the grass side of the court and earned a break in game four after Roger’s easy volley mistake at the net.

The Swiss broke back immediately to reduce the deficit to 3-2 and saved a break chance in game six with a beautiful backhand crosscourt winner. There were no chances for the returners in the remaining games, and they set up a tie break, the best possible way to end this fantastic and unique match. Federer opened a 4-2 lead before Nadal came back to 5-5 to heat the drama and keep the crowd on the edge of their seats. A tremendous passing forehand gave Rafa the first match point, and he wasted it after a double fault to keep Roger in contention.

A service winner gave Nadal another match point. Federer was not to be denied that easily, as he fired a service winner to make the result even at 7-7. The Swiss star took the next point for his match point, and he sprayed a backhand error and failed to cross the finish line. Roger saved another match point with a solid serve & volley combo and earned his second at 10-9, pushing hard and seeking that one last point. It was Nadal’s turn to show his clutch, and he fended it off with a brave attack. The home star seized the fourth match point when Roger failed to pick up the ball from a bad bounce on grass. The Spaniard grabbed the tie break 12-10 to celebrate the victory in front of the home crowd on a memorable day of tennis.