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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Thursday May 14, 2020


Today, May 14, marks the 14-year anniversary of one of the greatest matches of one of the greatest rivalries in tennis history. Rafael Nadal’s 6-7(0), 7-6(5) 6-4 2-6 7-6(5) victory over Roger Federer at the Foro Italico in Rome.

Tennis Express

The victory marked Nadal’s fourth straight win over Federer and his 53rd consecutive win on clay. That streak would stretch all the way to 81 consecutive victories on the surface, the longest ever for an ATP player, but none of those victories would be quite as dramatic—and potentially meaningful—as Nadal’s five-hour thrillride to the title in Rome.

Though Nadal’s victory was heroic, there is no doubt that Federer failed to own the moment when he had the chance to take the victory with Nadal serving at 6-5, 40-15.

On the first match point, as the Italian crowd struggled to keep silent as tennis crowds often struggle to do at such moments, Federer looked poised for a special moment. With dirt caked into his white headband he wore a deep intensity in his eyes as he swayed side-to-side in his return stance. Of course Nadal served to the backhand and Federer did well to send the return deep to Nadal’s backhand corner. Already at neutral in the rally the Swiss played a regulation backhand on his next ball, also to Nadal’s backhand. Satisfied that he’d done enough he went heavy with the forehand on the next shot, hoping to overwhelm Nadal with a shot straight down the middle.

When it sailed long, revealing the Swiss’ risk calculus to be a tad too eager, the tone changed.

Groans fell forth from the gallery, and Federer blew on the fingers of his right hand as he tried to look calm (he did look calm, but one can only imagine what he was feeling on the inside).

This time Nadal’s first serve was better, and it stretched out wide to the edge of the ad-court—a wicked slice on a mission. Federer, ever alert, was there to loft a topspin backhand return deep into the middle of the court. It bounced softly but had enough work on it to get Nadal on his back foot. Once again Federer was, at the very least, at neutral in the rally, one big forehand away from accomplishing his mission.

And yet, when the moment of execution arrived the Swiss seemed to stumble a bit around the ball, his footwork failing him ever so slightly as he slid into a forehand with his right leg extended and pulled the trigger on a down the line attempt that missed horribly, landing just inside the doubles line as more groans emanated from the gallery.


“In fact, I was lucky that when he had match point he made a mistake with two forehands, one which was quite simple for him,” Nadal would later say.

Moments later Nadal would absolutely sear a forehand winner to claim the game, a clenched fist rising above his iconic bulbous bicep as he glanced intently in the direction of his camp.

As the five-hour mark of this epic approached, Federer proved that he wasn’t done yet. After a brief interlude with the umpire over a ball mark at 1-1, the Swiss lashed a forehand winner for a mini-break at 2-1 and then knocked off a crisp volley for 3-1.

Federer was in the driver’s seat in the next point, looking to go up 4-1, but Nadal delivered an impossibly good sequence of counters from the baseline that ended with a passing shot winner and a celebratory leap as he landed back on serve at 2-3.

Federer, so determined, stepped around a mid-court ball and tattooed a forehand for a clean winner and the 4-2 mini-break advantage at the changeover.

Federer, just 24 years old at the time, appeared to be creeping ever closer to erasing the bitter memory of those match points squandered in the previous game. As he walked to his chair, the clay caked around his angles in solid rings, he clenched his fist firmly with a look of steely determination in his eyes.

The Swiss took a 5-3 lead and let out a sigh of relief as Nadal’s shanked forehand sailed wide two points later, the sigh a sign of the extreme heaviness of the challenge Federer faced on his side of the net; an indication of the enormous stress incurred while dealing with all that the swashbuckling Nadal could bring to bear on a clay court and the seemingly indefatigable nature of the Spaniard’s attack.

The next shank would come from Federer’s racquet and it put Nadal level at 5-5 after a brutally efficient rally that saw the teen-aged Spaniard rear back and hit gargantuan forehands, one after the other. Federer had done all he could to hold the fort until he finally couldn’t anymore. Who could, against this kid?

Two points later when a Nadal forehand clipped the baseline line just as an unruly fan called out from the stands, it was difficult to watch Federer stand helplessly after he had pushed the skidding ball back over the net just deep enough for it to land in Nadal’ wheelhouse.

Like he had been before, and like he would be many more times after against Nadal, Federer was a man blindfolded in front of the firing squad, waiting to be put out of his misery.

A few weeks later Nadal would romp past Federer in four sets on Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris to win his second of 12 Roland Garros crowns. At the time it was clear that the Spaniard was tennis’ equivalent to the Grim Reaper on the terre battue just as it was obvious that Federer’s efforts to test the Spaniard on the surface were utterly brilliant, and yet still not enough.

Hindsight tells us that the Nadal-Federer battle in Rome in 2006 came to a predictable end, but back then we couldn’t help being titillated by the possibility that Federer’s near miss would prove to be a step closer to eventually solving the Nadal clay riddle.

“I already knew after Monaco I was extremely close,” a dejected Federer said after the match. “I think this is another step closer because I got even closer to the win today than back then. So, no, I'm on the right track. I think, again, you know, I improved a few things again for this match. So, yeah, it was good to play him already three times this year. Definitely helps me.”

Whatever it meant, and however much it hurt or didn’t hurt Federer at the time, it was beginning to become apparent for many fans of tennis that the sight of these two phenomenally gifted athletes hunting after one another on any surface would be one of the greatest pleasures that many fans of the sport would ever know.

With Federer and Nadal back in the day the final tally mattered most, but to those without a dog in the fight that watched simply to see the art form elevated, the battles within the war mattered equally. Superhuman back and forths. The push and pull of the rallies. The mind-numbing cadence of the shotmaking, the dark and illuminative psychology of the pair, both separately and collectively. There was so much on display, so much elevated tennis, so much drama and mystery; as the future loomed on the horizon, empty pages in the annals of tennis history were eaterly waiting to be filled with stories of triumphs, tragedies and the tiny indecipherable moments that make up the melody of the pair’s magical moments.

14 years ago, there we were. On the cusp of something that words try to, but never really, capture. Who could have imagined that the sway of this rivalry would have taken the course it did? And who would have believed that 14 years later, we’d be eagerly anticipating their next great battle, wherever it may be.

 

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