Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have forged one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the game over the last 13 years and it all started in Monte Carlo on April 17, 2006. By the will of the tennis gods, this was the first round match since an 18-year-old Novak was ranked 67th and competed at only the fifth Masters 1000 event in a career.
The match lasted an hour and 49 minutes and Roger picked up a 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 triumph en route to his first Monte Carlo final where he lost to Rafael Nadal. It was a solid encounter with a lot of nice shots on both sides and Roger who had the upper hand in sets one and three to move over the top, overpowering his young rival who was still far from the physical shape that brought him the tennis glory after 2010.
Djokovic was one of the most promising prospects on the Tour and would finish this season with 40 ATP wins, cracking the top-20 and carving his way towards the first big titles in 2007. The Serb showed the complete arsenal of his shots in set number two but couldn't repeat that in the other parts of the match where Roger controlled the scoreboard to bring it home and move into the next round.
His forehand worked well in the sets he won and had more winners overall, both from serve and once the groundstroke battle raged on. They had a similar number of unforced errors and Novak pushed Federer's backhand to the limits to force almost as twice errors that he made, not enough to push him over the top after losing the stamina and energy in the deciding set.
Federer served at 53% and played only two loose service games in set number two, with Novak failing to reach at least a deuce in the remaining games on the return. That kept the pressure on the Serb who was unable to endure it, dropping 40% of the points behind the initial shot to face 11 break points, repelling eight of those to limit the damage but offering Roger enough space to bring the win home with three breaks.
The Swiss had a 22-14 advantage in service winners (they had just one ace each and it is always wiser to look at the number of unreturned serves as they provide the better picture) and 25-20 in the winners from the field.
He hit 12 forehand winners but also seven from the backhand wing, which is always important for him, while Djokovic claimed nine from his backhand that was already a rock-solid shot, also six with volleys. Interestingly, Roger made more mistakes from the forehand side, especially after the first set, and ended the match with 24 unforced errors in total while Djokovic stood on 25, missing equally from both wings.
As we already said, Federer made more forced errors, 20 compared to 11 although that couldn't jeopardize his triumph. Djokovic had four double faults which didn't help him either despite the fact they all came in different games.
Just over half of the points were wrapped up in the shortest segment up to four strokes and Roger had a clear 52-39 advantage in them, mainly thanks to those service winners. That pretty much earned the win for him since nothing could have separated them in the mid-range points from five to eight strokes where they were leveled at 30-30.
Djokovic claimed 10 out of 16 longest rallies although he needed to bring more points up to this area where he would have had the edge thanks to his running abilities and the overall package. The youngster opened the match with two backhand errors before holding with three service winners, an important fact in the biggest match on the Tour so far.
He reached a deuce in Roger's first service game before the Swiss closed the door with a couple of service winners for a 1-1. Federer grabbed the first break in game three, converting the fifth break point after too many errors from Djokovic who hadn't settle into a proper rhythm yet.
Novak opened the game with a double fault and found himself 40-0 down, saving all three break points to get back to deuce before spraying two more errors to hand his game. Federer increased the lead to 3-1 with two service winners and extra two mistakes from Novak who already committed nine unforced errors, struggling to find the right zone.
The Serb recovered to score an easy hold in game five but Roger was the dominant figure so far, hitting four winners in the next game to open a 4-2 gap. Djokovic had to dig deep on serve again, saving another break point to at least stay in contention and moving 30-15 up on the return in the next game.
Federer stayed calm and fired three winners to bring the game home, forcing Novak to serve to stay in the set. The upcoming youngster played a poor game, knocking three errors to lose serve for the second time and the set 6-3 after just 33 minutes.
Roger served at only 48% although that was hardly an obstacle for him, losing no points behind the first serve and keeping the second safe to avoid any troubles. On the other hand, Novak barely won 50% of the points on his serve, facing seven break points and losing serve twice.
Federer was 9-7 in front in service winners, and more comfortably in the direct points won from the field, forging a 9-3 lead. Novak made ten unforced errors compared to eight from Roger, managing to control his shots in the second part of the set (failing to move Roger from his forehand, though) but that was still far from the positive outcome, even with a fewer number of forced errors (6-3).
Roger continued where he left in the opening set, firing three winners in the first game of set number two. Novak responded with a solid hold for a 1-1, determined to turn the tide and try to play with more power to steal the momentum from Roger and keep it on his side of the net.
That was an instant success as he broke Federer for the first time in game three to move in front. The Swiss couldn't control his forehand like in the first set and made four errors in that game to give serve away without a proper fight.
The break was confirmed when Novak held in game four, taking a 14-stroke rally to increase the advantage before Roger reduced the deficit to 2-3 with four winners in game five. The strings of the match were in Novak's hands now and he had no troubles on serve in game six as well, with his groundstrokes working well and Federer who struggled to follow that pace, making four errors that led towards even bigger problems on serve in the next game.
Novak broke him again to create a 5-2 buffer with a return winner but mainly due to more mistakes from his opponent who lost his timing and range big time. Djokovic clinched the set 6-2 after just 32 minutes, converting the fourth set point when Roger missed a volley and it seemed that he could pull a great surprise and stun the world no.
1. Novak served and moved better, hitting with more power and depth and outplaying Roger who was miles from his best. The Swiss still had more winners, 5-3 in service winners and 8-7 from the field, but that was far from the gap he produced in the opener.
Novak tamed his shots nicely, finishing the set with just three unforced errors while Federer counted 11, which was just too much. Also, he made seven forced mistakes in comparison to only one from Novak and mistakes were the main reason for the Serb's dominance in this part of the match, committing just four in contrast to 18 from the other side of the net.
If Novak could have kept the level from the second set, Roger would have been in all kind of troubles but the youngster started to struggle physically and lost all the advantage he built in the previous set. His serve faded and didn't have the strength to cover the court as he did in the last half an hour, making too many errors and especially in his games.
Roger was ready to grab his chances and scored an early break that proved to be enough for an overall win since he held comfortably in all five service games. In the second game of the decider, Novak made more errors than in the entire second set to drop serve, providing the turning point of the match and powerless to pull the break back and make the encounter even more interesting.
Federer extended the lead to 3-0 after three more mistakes from Djokovic who lost the drive and the power that kept him roaring in set number two, facing additional two break points in game four that could have sealed his fate in this match if Roger had converted any.
Novak saved them both and held with two winners that had kept him in contention and within one break away from Roger. Nonetheless, Federer opened the gap to 4-1 with three direct points in game five, controlling the pace of the clash and moving towards the finish line with three winners in game seven for a 5-2.
Djokovic double faulted in the next game to offer Roger a match point, saving it with a well-constructed attack and landing two more winners to secure the game and cut the deficit to 5-3, prolonging the match for at least one more game.
Resolute Serb saved two more match points on the return in game nine with volley winners before he sent a forehand long to gift the win to Roger who booked the place in the next round. It was 8-4 in service winners for world no.
1 in the third set but Novak ousted him in the winners from the field department, notching ten while Federer stayed on eight. Still, this number of winners also drew a massive amount of mistakes from Djokovic who committed 12 unforced errors while Roger stayed on five.
They had seven forced errors each and the Swiss could have been happy with such an outcome, ending on the losing side in this category in the first two sets.