Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played 40 times across 16 years in their legendary ATP Head2Head rivalry. But still today, 14 years on, their clash in the championship of the 2006 Internazionali BNL d’Italia remains one of their most memorable.
It was only the pair’s sixth meeting, but it was clear that Federer and Nadal were tennis’ titans. Federer first earned the No. 1 FedEx ATP Ranking more than two years before their Foro Italico battle, and Nadal took World No. 2 in July 2005. He held a 1,290-point buffer ahead of World No. 3 David Nalbandian the week of 2006 Rome.
Nadal had already proven to have at least some kryptonite to counter Federer’s aggressive, free-flowing game, winning four of their first five matches. The ever-improving lefty won 2005 Roland Garros — including a semi-final victory against Federer — and beat the Swiss to triumph at the 2006 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters in four sets.
“I think I’m actually going to improve a lot by playing more against him, and I already feel like I have since he’s been around,” Federer said after his defeat in Monte Carlo. “The more I play him, the more I’ll also figure out his game and the easier it’s going to get for me. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I really believe it.”
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Federer got his chance to prove it on 14 May 2006, competing against Nadal on a hot Rome afternoon. He went for his shots, and was unafraid of being passed at the net, winning 64 of 84 net points.
The Swiss was in a winning position while leading 6-5 in the fifth set. Nadal hit his first double fault of the match to give Federer two championship points.
Triumph appeared even closer when Federer worked his way to neutral in the rally on his first opportunity, smacking a forehand down the middle of the court. However, he missed long.
“The first one I was more disappointed about because I was in a good position, and I didn’t want to go for the outright winner at all,” Federer said. “I just tried to play solid and with a lot of spin to his backhand, and long. I just couldn’t get quite over it in time, so that was a pity. I guess the first match point that cost me the match.”
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Federer still had another chance, and he went for broke on the run with a missile-like forehand down the line, missing well wide.
“I think the second one was definitely rushed. I tried to hit a winner. Why not? I already had one match point, so I thought I might as well go for it a little bit,” Federer said. “I didn’t try to totally hit a winner, but tried to play aggressively and I was a little late on it.”
“I was lucky that when he had match points,” Nadal said. “He made a mistake with two forehands, one which was quite simple for him.”
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Federer also led 5/3 in the deciding tie-break. He missed a mid-court forehand that would have given him three consecutive match points. Instead, Nadal won four straight points and fell to his back after clinching his second Rome title with a 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5) win.
“I have won, but I could have lost. I’ve been down many times,” Nadal said. “For sure I played very well, but it was a very tough match. It was complicated.”
The clash remains the longest of their rivalry, lasting five hours and five minutes. Of the 40 matches they have played, it was the only one clinched in a deciding-set tie-break, and the only one in which the winner saved match point. Federer won 179 points to Nadal’s 174, marking the only occasion in their rivalry that the loser won more total points.
“It was very close from [the] start until the finish. The result obviously reflects that, too,” Federer said. “I came back well and in the end I should have won. He caught me right on the finish line… That’s all I could do, fight hard and try and play as well as I could. It was a pity in the end.”
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Nadal also beat Federer in their other Rome clash, which came in 2013. The Spaniard triumphed 6-1, 6-3. Nadal now owns a record nine titles at the Foro Italico, while Federer has never triumphed at the ATP Masters 1000 event.