With the 2017 French Open just days away, it's time to relive the greatest clay-court matches of all time. Today, we look back at our #1 pick – the 2006 Rome Final between two of the greats of the game.
Rafael Nadal is a name that will forever be ingrained in the history of clay-court tennis. With his high-kicking topspin groundstrokes and superior court coverage, Nadal's style of play is a game tailor-made for the dirt. Throughout his career, Rafa has snared a record amount of titles on the surface and is now a living legend of the sport.
Today, however, we roll back the years to a sunny May afternoon in Rome. By the time the 2006 Italian Open final rolled around, Nadal boasted an astounding 52 match winning streak on clay, and was eager to secure his sixth Masters' title. The only obstacle left in his way? His biggest rival, Roger Federer.
The Swiss had been the dominant force in tennis for the previous two years during the grass and hard-court seasons, but Nadal was a puzzle the world No. 1 was struggling to solve. Exhibit A? The pair's Monte-Carlo final just weeks before their Rome clash, in which Nadal wriggled his way out of a tight four-set tussle. The lopsided head-to-head record in favour of the Spaniard had become one of the many cornerstones of the blossoming “Fedal” rivalry.
So, the stage was set. Two of the most formidable titans in the sporting world would lock horns in a rematch lined with hype and intrigue. What followed exceeded all expectations. It was a match that started as a clay court clinic and ended as a hard-fought slugfest. Every baseline rally was a battle of wills, and every venture to the net was precise and calculated. This final was an epic in all meanings of the word.
The atmosphere was electric as early as the first game, as the feisty Italian crowd made Campo Centrale feel more like a bullfighting ring than a tennis court. Both players cruised on serve through the first three games – weaving drop shots and volleys into their already vast array of shots. The first half-chance presented itself with the Spaniard serving at 1-2, 30-15.
Just three games in, it was clear that both men had already established a battle strategy. Federer would attempt to take the ball early, while Nadal would plant himself behind the baseline and belt topspinning bombs back over the net.
On this occasion, however, Federer refused to allow himself to be dominated by Nadal's monstrous groundstrokes, skipping around his backhand side and blasting a vicious forehand inside-in. This imperious point propelled Federer to the first breakpoint of the match, as a scuffed forehand from Nadal at 30-30 soared long. Feeling the pressure for the first time on serve, the Majorcan found himself on the back foot after a strong backhand return from the Swiss.
With Federer stepping deeper into the court after every shot, Nadal, in an attempt to whip an acutely angled backhand winner crosscourt, sprayed the ball wide. Despite showing few signs of emotion, Federer was firmly in the driver's seat.
Because of Federer's ability to consistently dictate points off his first serve, anyone would have expected the world No. 1 to polish off the set comfortably. The Swiss had a plan, and he was executing it well. But this is Rafael Nadal we're talking about, a man immune to the thought of surrender.
Almost out of nowhere, the second seed found himself with two break-back opportunities in the next game. Always the opportunist, Nadal produced his best tennis when he needed it most. The two rallied from the baseline before a punishing backhand from the Spaniard forced a short ball from Federer. Nadal honed in and unleashed a backhand winner down the line, letting loose in triumph.
Nadal's ruthlessness and determination while trailing would become a recurring theme throughout the match and would be an obstacle that Federer would have to be at his very best to overcome.
After breaks were traded in the early proceedings, both players managed to hold relatively comfortably. However, at 5-6, Federer launched an offensive on the Nadal serve once again.
A huge inside-out forehand drove his opponent's service game to deuce, prompting a roar from the crowd. The combatants continued to jostle for control of the game, trading the following two points to level the score at 40-40 once again.
Even at such a crucial juncture, Nadal was not afraid to stray from his routine style. After bullying Federer behind the baseline, the second seed showcased his dexterity with a drop shot. Federer and his quick wheels scampered towards the ball and sliced a deep backhand down the line. Now it was the Swiss who was the aggressor in the rally. Nadal managed to claw a backhand back into play, but Federer was poised and ready, stepping in and punching a killer forehand volley into the open court.
Despite devising and executing an excellent plan on the previous point, Federer's genius proved to be in vain, as his one-handed backhand deserted him on set point. This time, Nadal seemed to feed off his opponent's disappointment, striking two thunderous forehand winners to send the set into a tie-break.
The body language of both players indicated that Nadal had the momentum swinging in his favour, but the breaker painted a different picture. Federer played with unchecked aggression throughout its entirety. Whether it was a brilliantly angled backhand winner or a perfectly constructed net advance, Federer was “looking every bit the world number one”. The Maestro raced out to a domineering 6-0 lead and capped off a flawless breaker with a lunging backhand volley winner.
The two players settled into a groove on serve in the second set, denying each other any half-chance to breakthrough. The only moment of uncertainty came with Federer serving at 4-5. After a framed forehand surrendered a set point, the Swiss responded with a marvellous leaping backhand – the same shot that had won him the first set. There were several select shots that would go on to abandon Federer as the match continued, but his trusty net game remained consistent throughout.
Another tie-break awaited. It appeared as if the second set's climax was destined to continue along a similar path as the first's, as Nadal conceded an early mini-break with a careless netted forehand. However, Federer returned the favour with a mishit forehand of his own on the following point.
With the score tied at 1-1, Nadal was desperate to pull ahead, throwing down deep groundstroke after deep groundstroke. After shovelling back a looping forehand from Nadal, Federer's ball clipped the net, forcing the Spaniard to slice a dubious backhand short. Federer seized control of the rally, placing the cherry on top with a remarkable forehand drive volley. “That is absolutely world-class,” said Mark Petchey in rapt awe. Federer's flowing form seemed to unsettle Nadal, as a missed overhead volley on the following point widened the gap between the two.
Federer extended his lead to 4-2, but a wide forehand allowed Nadal a chance to grapple his way back into the contest. After a few more costly forehand errors off the Federer racquet, Nadal edged ahead 6-5.
The Spaniard, with his meticulous routines and habits, took his time preparing himself physically and mentally for the upcoming point. Following a mishit return from the Swiss, Nadal laid down a brutal forehand, forcing Federer to cough up a short ball. Nadal stumbled as he tracked it down, and awkwardly pushed a questionable approach shot right into Federer's hitting zone.
With Nadal unable to establish a firm position at the net, Federer had numerous options but walloped the backhand pass attempt into the net. Just like that, the championship match was level.
The Spaniard was in peak form in the third, as Federer had no answer to the ever-increasing barrage of winners raining down on him. It appeared as if this match was destined to fall into the same category as their previous meetings; the Monte-Carlo encounter was surely lingering on the world No. 1's mind. At 2-2, 30-30, a mentally scrambled Federer overcooked wild forehand miles long, offering up a breakpoint.
With a chance to crack the match wide open, Nadal shot a rocket-like backhand passing shot by an advancing Federer. This proved to be the decisive moment of the set, as Federer's body language began to show signs of dejection and discomfort. Nadal had no problems serving it out and was once again the heavy favourite to take the match.
“It's one thing to have a game plan that works against the world number one, it's another thing to be able to execute it,” said Leif Shiras as he discussed Nadal's tactic of grinding down the Federer backhand. Nadal continued to implement his strategy as the fourth set commenced, drawing breakpoints in the first game. However, Federer's fortitude on the forehand wing halted the Nadal onslaught, as the first seed managed to hold for 1-0.
Federer's fearlessness on those early break points seemed to give him some much-needed inspiration. With Nadal's momentum all but elapsed, this was a fresh start for Federer – a chance to veer the match away from another four-set defeat.
At 30-30 in the next game, the first seed struck a feather-like backhand drop shot into the ad court, baiting his opponent into the net. The commentators knew it, the crowd knew it, and the players knew it – this was a crucial exchange.
Despite losing his balance, Federer managed to guide a forehand passing shot into the open court with pinpoint precision. This was the Roger Federer that fans had come to know and love. Was the tide beginning to shift? A big first serve staved off the initial breakpoint, but on the second, the Spaniard had no answer to Federer's assertive forehand winner down the line.
At this time, the enormous significance of the set's early skirmishes became apparent. The crowd was restless, Federer was flaring his wizardry and the “King of Clay” was looking novice-like in comparison.
The world No. 1 rubbed salt into his rival's wound with another break to end the set, and the momentum shift was complete. With the score all tied up at two sets apiece, many questions emerged to the forefront of the match. Would the winning streak be snapped? Did Federer have what it takes to dethrone his nemesis? Or would this match just end up as an exclamation point, further proof of Nadal's invincibility on clay?
The one set shootout commenced. Federer attained an early opportunity on the Nadal serve, forcing the score to deuce with a superb backhand volley struck down near his shoelaces. After Federer snatched the advantage, Nadal floated a forehand long. The Swiss led 3-1. This, however, was when Nadal began to exhibit the fighting qualities that would go on to define his character. Every short ball Federer offered, Nadal would pounce on. The Spaniard's persistence finally earned him break-back point at 3-4, on which he forced an error with his unwavering defence.
The beginning of the fifth set summarised much of the final, as it saw Federer storm ahead early only for Nadal to wrestle his way back into contention with brute force. With the Spaniard serving at 5-6, the match was still very much up for grabs. It was Federer who first sensed the finish line. Using his aggressive counter-punching to its full extent, he outlasted Nadal in a marathon rally, bringing up a double match point. After a near five-hour classic, the epic culmination had finally arrived… or so we thought. The first championship point was squandered after a brief rally, with Federer's nerve slipping on a routine forehand. Another rally took place on the ensuing point, seeing both players skidding to each ball that came back their way. With a Nadal backhand landing perfectly in his hitting-zone, Federer unleashed on a forehand down the line. A massive winner would have been a fitting conclusion to the final, but alas, the ball landed wide. “I pulled the trigger too early,” said Federer after the match, as he contemplated his missed opportunities.
Nadal hastily wrapped up his service game with a one-two-punch combo, and a fifth-set tie-break was initiated. Perhaps déjà vu for Nadal, as the Spaniard had survived a brutal deciding breaker in the Rome final one year prior. Would lightning strike twice in the same place? The early exchanges suggested it would not, as Federer, despite quarrelling with the umpire, snagged an early mini-break with an explosive forehand. “That forehand's gonna win or lose the match for him” commented Shiras as Federer pulled ahead 2-1. A perfectly placed forehand approach shot followed by a bread-and-butter backhand volley winner seemed to drill yet another nail into Nadal's coffin.
A wave of excitement swept the crowd as the day faded into the night over the Foro Italico. The contest was beginning to crescendo in intensity. In the shade of the previous point, Federer attacked the net with a massive forehand inside-in. Nadal responded with near-perfection, scooping a topspin-laden backhand passing shot crosscourt. Federer managed to bat another ferocious forehand down the line, but Nadal – who appeared to have anticipated Federer's every move – delivered a wrong-footing passing shot down the line. Nadal leapt into the air as the spellbound crowd stood in applause.
It was Federer's turn to bounce back. A courageous inside-out forehand saw the Swiss edge ahead once again, 4-2. His forehand had looked as rhythmic as ever throughout the tie-break, but his elbow, once again, began to tighten. At 5-3, and then again at 5-4, he misfired two routine forehands. The choking gods had Federer locked in their stranglehold, as the world No. 1's forehand had failed him in the clutch once again. A misfired backhand return from Federer at 5-5 presented Nadal with his first match point. By this time, both players were smeared with patches of red clay – perhaps battle scars, signifying the gruelling war in which both had doggedly fought. This, however, was indeed checkmate. Trailing 6-5, another overcooked forehand was the final punch from Federer. Nadal collapsed onto the dirt in ecstasy, engulfed by the eruption of noise from the crowd. He had cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats on clay.
This match was a crucial juncture in the Federer-Nadal rivalry, as the Swiss admitted that the defeat, as well as others like it, “scarred” him. Nevertheless, the two continued to duel for control over the sport in the following years in further epic clay encounters. However, it was their 2006 Rome final that will live on as one of the – if not the – greatest clay-court matches of all time.
You can watch extended highlights of this epic battle here: