Starting from Miami 2004, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have forged one of the greatest rivalries in the history of our game, playing against each other 40 times and battling for numerous Major and Masters 1000 titles in the last 17 years. They were involved in some epic battles on all three surfaces around the globe, with the 2006 Rome final standing as one of the most extraordinary encounters they have ever played. In fact, it was one of the most epic clashes ever seen in tennis, with Nadal prevailing 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5) in five hours and five minutes to successfully defend the title won 12 months earlier against Guillermo Coria in the match that lasted nine minutes longer! On May 14, 2006, the crowd at Foro Italico had a unique opportunity to attend the clash between the world’s best players. They already competed in two ATP finals earlier that season, with Nadal winning titles in Dubai and Monte Carlo. Of course, the Spaniard was already one of the greatest clay-courters ever at 19.
However, Roger entered this final with positive vibes after pushing Rafa to the limits in Monte Carlo a month earlier, ready to make another strong challenge in Rome. As the result suggests, the Swiss was there to fight for every point, and the victory barely slipped from his hands, leading 4-1 in the final set and squandering two match points on the return at 6-5 and also a 5-3 lead in the deciding tie break! As always, Nadal refused to surrender and overcame all the obstacles to win one of the most important matches of his career and lift already his sixth Masters 1000 title before turning 20! It was Nadal’s 53rd straight win on clay, tying Guillermo Vilas’ Open era record and conquering the 13th consecutive triumph in the ATP finals since another epic title match against Roger in Miami a year earlier. Also, it was the 16th and last ATP title for Rafa as a teenager, which puts him up there with Bjorn Borg at the top of the record list, achieving records that will hardly be touched by the upcoming young stars.
Knowing all this, we should switch our attention to this fantastic final and examine how Nadal emerged as a winner in one of the toughest tests he has ever experienced on his beloved surface in the last 16 years. Roger eventually won five points more than Rafa and did almost everything right on the court, saving six out of nine break points and defending the second serve to stay in touch with Nadal in the entire match, just missing to cross the finish line first. The Swiss was in fully attacking mode, using every opportunity to impose his forehand and break Nadal’s rhythm with constant net rushings (claiming a staggering 64 out of 84 points at the net). Also, world no. 1 had a slight advantage in the shortest points and followed Nadal’s numbers in the more extended rallies, only to fall short in the encounter’s closing stages when his forehand let him down.
Rafael Nadal needed over five hours to beat Roger Federer in the 2006 Rome final.
Rafa never gave up, finding a way to push Roger’s backhand to the limits to get back to the positive side of the scoreboard in the deciding set and stay focused in the moments while facing those match points to notch one of his dearest wins of the Tour. Roger was the better player at the start of the match, breaking in game four for a 3-1 lead when Rafa hit a backhand long. The Spaniard responded with a backhand down the line winner that earned the break back in game five and stayed neck and neck until game 12 when Nadal served to stay in the set. Digging deep, he fended off two set points and reached the tie break with a forehand winner for a great escape and a chance to claim the opener. It was all about Roger in the breaker, though, winning it 7-0 after a volley winner that gave him the confidence ahead of the rest of the clash that could have earned his first Rome crown.
Nothing could separate the rivals in set number two until game ten when Nadal created a set point on the return, rejected by a perfect volley from Roger. The latter brought the game home with another excellent half-volley to level the score at 5-5. Like the opener, it went into another tie break. The Swiss had a 4-2 lead before spraying two forehand errors and spoiling the opportunity to move two sets to love in front and make things even more challenging for the defending champion. Roger made another significant forehand error at 5-5, and Rafa closed the set after his rival’s backhand mistake to set the real drama and excitement after over two hours of grueling battle. Federer saved a break chance in the third set’s third game, and Nadal passed him with a crosscourt backhand winner at 2-2 to grab the lead that he cemented a few minutes later following Roger’s huge backhand slice error.
The Spaniard served for the set in game ten and delivered a super fine hold at love to take two sets to one advantage when he forced Federer’s backhand mistake, boosting his confidence and moving closer to the finish line. The Swiss was in all kind of troubles at the start of the fourth set as well, saving two break points to avoid a setback and earning a break point in game four after a forehand winner. Rafa repelled it with a service winner but couldn’t do the same on the second when Roger docked a forehand down the line winner that moved him 3-1 in front. The Swiss held in game five after a forehand winner, and the set was in his hands when Nadal sprayed a backhand error at 2-5, losing serve for the second time and enrolling the decider after three hours and 45 minutes of outstanding tennis.
With momentum on his side, Roger broke in the fourth game and fended off two break points in the next one to increase the lead to 4-1, standing in an excellent position to dethrone great rival and deliver Nadal’s first loss on clay after 52 straight wins. With his back pushed against the wall, Rafa held at love with a forehand winner in game six and stayed in touch with Roger a few minutes later to erase the Swiss’ game point that could have sent him 5-2 up. Nadal broke back after Federer’s backhand error and held after deuce in game eight to level the score at 4-4 and gain a massive boost. Federer had different plans, though, and created two match points on the return in game 12 that could have delivered his first Rome crown! His forehand couldn’t carry him in those moments, though, making two easy mistakes from his more substantial wing to squander a massive opportunity before Rafa blasted a forehand winner to set up the deciding tie break and gather momentum.
Finding himself 4-2 down, the Spaniard struck a beautiful forehand that switched the impulse to his side before Roger gained a 5-3 advantage, moving two points away from victory. His forehand cost him dearly again, netting an easy shot that could have brought him three match points and letting Nadal back to 5-5 after yet another marvelous rally that the Spaniard controlled with his forehand. A service winner gave Nadal his first match point, and he completed the triumph with Roger’s forced error to celebrate the greatest moment of his young career besides that 2005 Roland Garros crown and earning the place among the tennis immortals few weeks before the 20th birthday.