2004 was a significant year for both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, setting the stage for one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the sport, that still lives on. Roger became world no. 1 in February although just a month later he was beaten by the 17-year-old Rafael Nadal in Miami, with the Spaniard proving to be Federer's closest rival in the next four and a half years before he managed to pass the Swiss on the ATP list and take the throne.
Roger got his revenge in Miami a year later, beating Nadal in a grueling five-setter before Rafa moved in front in the head-to-head meetings again after his triumph in the semis of the Roland Garros in June. Their fourth clash came in Dubai 2006 and Nadal defeated his great rival and the defending champion 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in an hour and 53 minutes on March 5, claiming the 13th ATP title and the fourth consecutive on hard courts.
A foot injury forced Nadal to skip all the events between Madrid at the end of 2005 and Marseille in February, competing at only for the second time after a comeback and highly motivated to make some ground after skipping significant events like the Masters Cup and Australian Open.
Also, he managed to end Roger's unmatched streak on the hard courts that started at Rotterdam a year earlier and to become the first player who has beaten the Swiss after 56 consecutive wins on the most common surface, an Open era record that will hardly be surpassed.
Roger was in the league of his own in the first set although Rafa found the way to make a counter-attack in set number two and bring the match home in under two hours for one of the most important wins of the season. Thanks to that opening set, Federer won seven points more than Nadal overall but he got broken in the ninth game of sets two and three to find himself on the losing side after winning three consecutive Dubai crowns.
They both scored three breaks of serve and it was Nadal who arranged his winning return games better to emerge as a winner. The Spaniard served at 70% and he needed that against such a strong rival, staying in touch in his service games after the first set and waiting for a chance on the return patiently.
Roger had better percentages on both the first and second serve but those two late breaks he suffered cost him dearly as he had no time to pull them back and extend the encounter. Nadal followed Federer's pace in the shortest points, hitting well after the serve or with his first groundstroke on the return and outplaying Roger in the mid-range points up to eight or nine strokes.
Surprisingly, Federer had a clear edge in the points with ten strokes or more although that wasn't enough to cross the finish line and extend the unbeaten Dubai run. The defending champion had the match in his hands right from the start, winning four points in a row on the return in game two for a 2-0 lead and sealing the break with a crosscourt forehand winner.
Nadal was pretty much powerless on the return in the entire set and he was broken at love in game eight to drop the opener 6-2 in just 28 minutes. Roger was on a roll, setting the pace with his forehand and punishing every shorter ball from his opponent, creating a 30-0 lead on the return in the second game of set number two.
Rafa delivered four good points for a pivotal hold that gave him the necessary confidence, finally creating a break point in game five when Roger netted a backhand. The Swiss saved it to keep his serve intact but couldn't do the same at 4-4 when Nadal broke at love with a forehand winner to move 5-4 ahead and get a chance to serve for the set.
He held at 30 after a volley error from Federer and the match was very much alive now, only with the momentum that switched to Nadal's side of the net. The Spanish teenager and broke again at the start of the decider with a beautiful forehand crosscourt winner, establishing himself as the ruler on the court and the favorite to cross the finish line first.
Federer restored his shots and was back on the level terms with a break in game four, confirming it with a hold at love a few minutes later for a 3-2 advantage. They both served well in the following three games and the crucial moment occurred in game nine when Roger sprayed a forehand error to drop serve and move Rafa a game away from the championship.
The world no. 2 needed no second invitation and he completed his triumph with a hold at love, celebrating the title after a forced backhand error from Roger and breaking into tears before the trophy ceremony, mighty relieved he was back on the winning way for the first time since October last year and such a long break.