The year 2005 has special meaning for Rafael Nadal fans. In 2005 the Spaniard began his unprecedented reign over clay-court tennis.
Nadal, 18 years old, suffered a brutal 5-set loss to Roger Federer in the Miami final on hard courts, and then immediately started racking up titles on the European clay.
His foot speed and buggy-whip forehand sent shockwaves through the tennis community. Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome – they all fell in quick succession.
Nadal would go on to stretch his winning streak to 24 matches, claiming the French Open title on his very first attempt.
It can be easy to overstate the meteoric rise of Nadal, and I believe we do just this when we look at Nadal’s career. Fans tend to assume he quickly swept aside the clay courters of the mid-2000s and then immediately took up residence in Roger Federer’s head.
This disregards the prowess of the players he came up against. And crucially, this overlooks the development of Rafael Nadal’s game and the development of his ‘never-say-die’ mentality.
To remedy this misstep, I want to take you back to a pivotal battle in Nadal’s 2005 clay-court season: his Rome Masters Finals victory over the Argentine Guillermo Coria. In this match, Coria forced Nadal to confront a variety of tactics and styles and brought him to within inches of defeat, but Nadal would emerge the victor in a breathtaking clay court battle: 6-4 3-6 6-3 4-6 7-6 (6)
Here are some highlights for your viewing pleasure
The setting is the bronze clay of the Foro Italico. The stadium feels intimate, the crowd emotional, transfixed by the spectacle they are witnessing. The contestants haven’t had things all their way. Coria had to fight past Fernando Gonzalez in the first round;
Nadal just barely overcame David Ferrer in the semis. Matchup-wise, the two are dead-even at one win apiece. Nadal won their last match on clay at the Monte Carlo Open, but today Coria is favoured as the more established, experienced player. Such considerations fade quickly. The Foro Italico comes to the foreground, and the squeak of shoes and the thump of the ball on racket soon occupy our thoughts.
The match starts tentatively. Nadal and Coria test each-other warily. In the opening skirmishes of the match, we begin to see the games of the contestants.
On one side we have the young Rafael Nadal. His confidence in his forehand is iron-clad, and he directs it up the line at will. He lunges and slides and reaches balls no one else can. Compared to today, he plays farther back and has much less confidence in his backhand. I can’t recall one backhand down the line winner in this match. But he dips it unerringly low when Coria comes to the net.
On the other side, we have Guillermo Coria. Coria has been one of the world’s most renowned clay courters for the last couple of years.
In 2004 he lost to Gaston Gaudio in the Roland Garros final after being up two sets to love. Mentally devastated, he had a rough couple of months immediately after, and suffered a shoulder injury – however, he seems fresh and dialled-in today.
Coria plays lithely efficiently. There is no wasted motion in his game. If one were to cross Nikolay Davydenko’s linear, compact strokes with Novak Djokovic’s movement, you would come close to making flesh the Argentine’s style.
Both men will cover every inch of the court. Few backhand slices will be hit, and even fewer aces.
Early on Coria capitalizes off some poor misses from Nadal to break and go up 3-2. Stung, Nadal loosens up, and his forehand starts firing. He breaks back, and then again, to clinch the set with an absurd angled inside-out forehand. At the start of the second set, we begin to see some different point constructions.
While Coria has the speed and stamina to win many a match with defence, today he seems to understand that this would be a losing strategy. Instead, he starts coming forward, throwing in serve and volley points. Against Nadal’s heavy topspin this tactic is a terrifying prospect. And indeed things threaten to veer out of control. Down 0-1, Coria staves off a breakpoint with a slanted backhand volley and a loopy topspin lob. When he holds, the game has changed. Coria now knows he must move Nadal up and down the court.
He breaks quickly, but Nadal digs in and breaks back. They’re tied, with Nadal serving at 3-3. Focused now, Nadal stops giving Coria easy chances to move forward. Coria will have to create his opportunities from the back of the court. In a titanic rally at 30-40, their strategies from the ground crystallize.
From the back of the court, Nadal uses a familiar pattern. His strategy: hit deep, high-bouncing forehands into Coria’s backhand, pulling him wide. Then, when he has opened up enough space in the deuce court, flatten the ball and hit inside-out. Simple. Deadly.
Over the years this pattern has rendered the very best helpless against Nadal on clay. But in 2011 Novak Djokovic famously ‘discovered’ a solution. The Serb’s backhand is so good he can punish those loopy forehands and clock them back crosscourt, rushing Nadal into errors.
Guillermo Coria’s backhand is not nearly as powerful. But he has options. He frequently sends running backhands down the line, surprising Nadal. Coria makes it look easy, but it’s a difficult task. The movement of his body and the movement of his racket are at odds.
Frozen for an instant in this tense state, Coria somehow takes the viciously spinning ball and redirects it down the line. It forces Nadal to hit a backhand, allowing Coria time to bring his forehand into play on the next shot. On his forehand, he can dictate play, especially when hitting inside-out. Hit with pace (and a touch of sidespin!), Coria’s inside-out forehand often rushes Nadal, causing the Spaniard to pop up a short reply. These two tactics – surprise backhands down the line and flat inside-out forehands – are essential for taking time away from Nadal, allowing Coria to move forward up in the court.
Coria loses the rally at three-all (Nadal is now serving at deuce), but his tactics are working. Coria then breaks to go up 4-3 and then pulls through on his service game. Nadal, rushed and uncomfortable, gifts the last game with a backhand in the bottom of the net. Game. Set. One set all.
Starting the third set, we again see a shift in momentum. Nadal commits to the front-court battle, breaking in the first game with a series of clutch volleys. The set turns into a rout. Coria is getting passed at will, left and right. Here we see some of the first poor play of the match. Coria messes up a couple of overheads in the third game and is broken again. It is a portent of the service struggles which will end the Argentine’s career.
Surprisingly, Nadal loses focus up 5-1. And here we see a theme in Nadal’s career: he doesn’t feel natural playing aggressive tennis for long periods. He often becomes passive, relying on his speed to bail him out. Today his forehand begins to fall shorter, sitting up in Coria’s strike zone, and his serve loses accuracy and pace. Coria takes advantage, breaking back and pulling the score to 3-5.
What follows is the best game of the match. Throughout 11 deuces the two yank each other around the court, side to side, up and down. The men are in full flow, and it’s a sight to behold. At one point Coria topples onto his side, losing the point. He takes a breather there, grimacing, sitting in the dirt, and the crowd cheers.
The two are neck and neck, but Nadal eventually takes it, a mishit forehand spinning up too high for Coria to deal with. After fighting for 21 minutes, Coria has lost the set. Disappointment glimmers along the sides of his mouth. In most matches, this would be the turning point. The mental and physical energy Coria expended in that endless deuce would leave him spent and unable to fight back in the fourth set. But not today.
Coria instead digs in, breaking Nadal to start the fourth with a feathery inside-out drop shot. Heartened, he immediately uses the drop-shot three more times in the next game to mixed success. Coria’s desperate strategy signals a strange period in the match.
The two, perhaps tired of long baseline rallies, turn to drop-shots and slices over and over again. Somehow it works for Coria. He deals with the change in rhythm far better than Nadal, whose inexperience begins to show. Nadal even tries an ambitious tweener down 4-2. No luck. Coria takes the set 6-4 with an unreturnable serve.
It’s now two sets all, and we are nearly four hours in. Coria has the momentum and is ruthlessly punishing any ball Nadal leaves short. He’s up 3-0, a double break. In men’s tennis, a double break in the final set is almost always the nail in the coffin. But not against Nadal. Out of nowhere, he regains his attacking commitment.
The Spaniard pushes forward, taking the ball earlier. His forehand flattens out, striking the lines again and again. With Nadal’s main weapon firing, Coria looks nervous. A rare successful Nadal drop shot gets one break back, and the next comes from errors by the Argentine. The crowd is roaring, Nadal’s grunts are echoing around the stadium, and yet Coria somehow ekes out a hold with a ridiculously wide backhand to make it four games all.
The two gladiators fight on as darkness advances. Nadal saves a breakpoint at 4-4 30-40, again with deft touch shots. It’s strange.
One would expect big forehands from Nadal at the most crucial moments, but today he saves a breakpoint with a risky drop shot, and then a slice backhand winner that skips onto the line. But make no mistake, it is his forehand that is creating all of these chances, pushing Coria back further and further. Yet the Argentine refuses to crack, playing perfect, linear shots. Over and over he gets his opponent on the run, and instead of playing into the open court, he goes behind him, catching him by surprise.
The stadium is rocking. The crowd cries out anytime a shot looks close to the line. Coria is so tense he bites into a tennis ball for comfort. Nadal throws up his head and roars with anguish. But neither man gives an inch. Into the final set tiebreak, they go. Nadal opens up a strong lead. His forehand is just too heavy for Coria, whose attacking game suddenly exceeds its tight margins.
Coria somehow pulls back from 5-3 down with a shoelace backhand passing winner and then chokes, missing a sitter forehand. Nadal is feeling the pressure too. Up 6-4 he throws in a double fault, and then a poor forehand return. Somehow it’s 6 points all and Nadal has wasted two match points. He immediately reasserts himself, forcing his way forward and pulling off a leaping off-balance overhead to win the point.
On the next Coria does the same thing but then hits a tentative overhead. Nadal hits one, then two passing shots and watches as Coria’s final volley goes long. The match is over. Nadal collapses onto the dirt; feet curled up around his head in a somersault. He’s won. Five hours and 12 minutes of sheer grit, and Nadal has won.
Coria fought valiantly, sticking with the young Spaniard throughout. Just two points separated them. One overhead was brave, the other tentative. Sport can be brutal. One-shot can decide a match; one match can decide a tournament, one tournament can determine a career.
From the 2005 Rome Final, the careers of these two competitors diverged massively. Rafael Nadal would go on to win the French Open and was not to be beaten on clay for two more full years. Guillermo Coria would develop the yips, a mentally linked loss of motor skills, rendering his serve weak and prone to errors. But their battle in the Foro Italico will remain frozen in time, a marvel of willpower and strength, an eternal letter to their love of the game.