Roger V. Rafa had already achieved marquee status. The scenario at the top had become tense. Nadal seemed to have a measure of Roger, and Roger knew not why or how was he regularly losing to the Spaniard. Roger still found him ‘one-dimensional’ despite losing four losing four times to him in their five meetings.
Rafa had already beaten him at Dubai and Monte Carlo in 2006, but Federer felt that he was closer to unravelling the mystery of Rafa’s mastery over him. More pain and disappointment awaited the Swiss Master in Italy and France, enough to dent his confidence and fill him with doubts.
Roger was no longer the sole draw in the game. He remained the man to beat- Number One, holder of the Wimbledon, the USO and the Australian Open titles in the run up to the French, winner of seven Grand Slams already – in short the grandest scalp, the King of Tennis-who possessed the most beautiful game. But Rafa, the Number Two, had won 52 consecutive matches on clay and was one win short of equalling Guillermo Vilas’ record (Incredibly ,Rafa went on to win 29 more, his record stands at 81). He was the reigning French Open champion. The Challenger had arrived, and had crowned himself the King of Clay Principality. The Imperial Overlord of Cements and Grasses had realized his crown was shaky, and this jitteriness showed in his eager forehands, nervous backhand slices and snide comments about Rafa and Toni Nadal.
It was a bright, warm summer day, perfect for long hours of outdoor sports. The Colosseum of Roman tennis, Foro Italico, was ready to host the gladiators. There would be blood, sweat, tears and toil- and two winners at the end of the day, one of them being tennis herself! The Red Clay of Rome had witnessed some great battles over the years. The previous year’s final had been a gruelling five-setter in which Rafa had vanquished Coria. Iceman Borg and an Italian, Adriano Panatta, had played a memorable final here in 1978. But the five hours and five minutes classic that unrolled left Rome mesmerized and the tennis world spellbound.
This was just the beginning. They were to clash 34 more times with each other in the next 13 years.
Roger began aggressively and took chances on his forehand. Rafa found his serve under attack, and was broken early. But he soon broke back with a crushing forehand in the Deuce court of an off-balance Federer. Long rallies, swinging fortunes, miraculous recoveries, Roger’s volleys and impossible angles, Rafa’s passing shots which flummoxed Federer and power-packed ground strokes – the first set itself had everything to deserve the status of a classic. Then Federer played a near perfect tiebreak and blanked Rafael 7-0 to take the first set.
Both players kept their serves in the second set. Federer faced a break point which Nadal could not capitalize on. Topspin missiles flew from both sides of the net. This standoff seemed to have no early resolution. The set hurtled into a tiebreak where Federer raced ahead to a 4-2 lead, but a long forehand and a weak unforced backhand error gave Rafa 7-5 victory.
Rafa was relentless in the third and forced at least deuce scores in all of Roger’s service games. He converted one out of the two break points he got, and that proved enough to take lead. Roger looked drained, and faced two break points in the first game of the fourth set. Things now seemed difficult for Roger, but the Zen Master dug in deep. He came back all guns blazing and saved his serve with two outstanding rapier-like forehands. This gave him fillip and he started looking more assured at the net, even as Nadal momentarily lost focus and was broken twice. Surprisingly, Rafa did not win any points on his second serve in this set which Federer won by 6-2.
The deciding set was itself an epic. Federer broke Nadal to go 3-1 up, then saved two break points in the next to make it 4-1. Rafa broke back at 2-4, then both went hammer and tongs playing possibly the highest quality of tennis ever played in Rome. At 5-6, 15-15, Rafa served the first double fault of the match and then hit a long forehand to hand over two break points to Roger, which the latter frittered away with a long forehand and then a wide one. The Swiss raced to 3-1, then 4-2 and 5-3 in the final tiebreak. But his aggressive forehands proved to be his undoing as the Mallorcan came back to wrap the tiebreak, set, match by 7-5.
Roger did everything in this match yet came out short. He came to the net 84 times and won 64 of those points. He made 89 unforced errors, 54 of them on forehands. He tried to control the rallies with his forehand rather than letting Nadal dictate terms with his. He made Rafa run into sidelines with his angles, and yet the Spaniard rose to the challenge. Federer had again failed to find a way to stop Rafa on clay. He went on to further lose four finals and a semifinal at Roland Garros, two more finals at Monte Carlo and one final each at Madrid, Rome and Hamburg. He did win a final each at Hamburg and Madrid, but could never convincingly claim to have solved the puzzle called Rafael Nadal.
Their rivalry gained further edge when Federer complained against Rafa on receiving on-court coaching from Toni Nadal. Later he repeated his one-dimensional barb, to which Rafa replied that Roger has to learn to be a gentleman, even when he loses. It is a wonder that the two champions have now become such pals.
Interestingly, the duo ended up playing the shortest of Italian Open finals (16 games) in 2013- a perfect anti-climactic experience after the longest duel of 2006 (57 games). In fact the Rome Masters 2006 final was the last great ATP Masters match. After the Fedal marathon at Foro Italico, only five more best of five sets finals were played till the end of 2007. Since then Masters’ finals have become best of three affairs. Some good matches do get played, none gets remembered. Masters have lost their recall value. I don’t know who wins!
The Fedal Wimbledon final of 2008 and the Nadal-Djokovic Australian Open final of 2012 are widely considered as the greatest tennis matches ever played. Even the Fedal Australian Open final in 2017 was a classic. But for the greatest clay court match of the century, the Rome 2006 final has only one rival, that is the Nadal-Djokovic French Open semi-final played in 2013. While in the Rome classic, players maintained the superior quality of play throughout, the final two sets (6-7, 9-7 in favour of Nadal) of the Nadalovic encounter at the Roland Garros had more intensity and drama. It would be difficult to choose one over the other, but I would go with the Rome final simply because the level of the game never dipped in 305 minutes. Fourteen years have passed, but the match still seems fresh in memory.
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