Starting from Miami 2004, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have forged one of the greatest rivalries in the history of our game, playing against each other 38 times and battling for numerous Grand Slam and Masters 1000 titles in the last 15 years.
They were involved in some epic battles on all three surfaces around the globe, with 2006 Rome final standing as one of the greatest encounters they have ever played. In fact, it was one of the most epic encounters ever seen in tennis, with Nadal prevailing 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5) in five hours and five minutes to successfully defend the title won 12 months earlier against Guillermo Coria in the match that lasted nine minutes longer than this one!
On May 14, 2006, the crowd at Foro Italico had the special opportunity to attend the clash between the best players in the world who already competed in two ATP finals earlier that season, with Nadal winning titles in Dubai and Monte Carlo.
Of course, the Spaniard was already one of the greatest clay courters ever at the age of 19 although Roger entered this final with positive vibes after pushing Rafa to the limits in Monte Carlo a month earlier, ready to make a strong challenge in Rome as well.
As the result suggests, the Swiss was there to fight for every point and the victory barely slipped from his hands, leading 4-1 in the final set and squandering two match points on the return in the 12th game, also a 5-3 lead in the deciding tie break!
As always, Nadal refused to surrender and overcame all the obstacles to win one of the most important matches of his career and lift already his sixth Masters 1000 title, all before turning 20! This was Nadal's 53rd straight win on clay, tying Guillermo Vilas' Open era record and conquering the 13th straight triumph in ATP finals since another epic title match against Roger in Miami a year earlier.
Also, this was the 16th and last ATP title for Rafa as a teenager which puts him up there with Bjorn Borg at the top of the record list, achieving records that will hardly be touched by the upcoming young stars. Knowing all this, we should switch our attention to this amazing final and see how Nadal emerged as a winner in one of the toughest tests he has ever experienced on his beloved surface in the last 15 years.
Roger eventually won five points more than Rafa and did almost everything right on the court, saving six out of nine break points and defending the second serve to stay in touch with Nadal in the entire match, just missing to cross the finish line first.
The Swiss was in fully attacking mode, using every opportunity to impose his forehand and break Nadal's rhythm with constant net rushings (claiming staggering 64 out of 84 points at the net). Also, world no. 1 had a small advantage in the shortest points and managed to follow Nadal's numbers in the more extended rallies, only to fall short in the closing stages of the encounter when his forehand let him down.
Rafa never gave up, finding the way to push Roger's backhand to the limits to get back to the positive side of the scoreboard in the deciding set and stay focused in the moments while facing those match points to notch one of his dearest wins of the Tour.
Roger was the better player at the start of the match, breaking in game four for a 3-1 lead when Rafa hit a backhand long. The Spaniard responded with a backhand down the line winner that earned the break back in game five, staying neck and neck until game 12 when Nadal served to stay in the set.
Digging deep, he fended off two set points, reaching the tie break with a forehand winner for a great escape and a chance to claim the opener. It was all about Roger in the breaker, though, winning it 7-0 after a volley winner that gave him the confidence before the rest of the clash that could have earned his first Rome crown.
Nothing could have separated the rivals in set number two until game ten when Nadal earned a set point on the return, rejected by a perfect volley from Roger who brought the game home with another great half-volley to level the score at 5-5.
Just like the opener, it went into another tie break and the Swiss had a 4-2 lead before spraying two forehand errors, wrecking the opportunity of moving two sets to love in front and making things even tougher for the defending champion.
Roger made another big forehand error at 5-5 and Rafa closed the set after a backhand mistake from his rival, setting up the real drama and excitement after more than two hours of grueling battle. Federer saved a break point in the third game of set number three and Nadal passed him with a crosscourt backhand winner at 2-2 to grab the lead, cementing it a few minutes later after a huge backhand slice error from Roger who started to lose ground in those moments.
The Spaniard served for the set in game ten and delivered a super fine hold at love, taking two sets to one advantage when he forced a backhand mistake from Federer, boosting his confidence and moving closer to the finish line.
The Swiss was in all kind of troubles at the start of the fourth set as well, saving two break points to avoid a setback and earning a break point in game four after a forehand winner. Rafa repelled it with a service winner but couldn't do the same on the second break point when Roger docked a forehand down the line winner that moved him 3-1 in front.
The Swiss held in game five after a forehand winner and the set was in his hands when Nadal sprayed a backhand error at 2-5, losing serve for the second time and enrolling the deciding set after three hours and 45 minutes of outstanding tennis.
With the momentum on his side, Roger broke in the fourth game and fended off two break points in the next game to increase the lead to 4-1, standing in a good position to dethrone great rival and deliver Nadal's first loss on clay after 52 straight wins.
With his back pushed against the wall, Rafa held at love with a forehand winner in game six and stayed in touch with Roger in the game that followed, saving a game point that could have sent Roger 5-2 up before breaking back after a backhand error from Federer who could have only found the net.
Every point became crucial now and Nadal held after deuce in game eight, leveling the score at 4-4 and looking eager to stage a complete comeback in the rest of the encounter. Federer had different plans, though, creating two match points on the return in game 12 that could have delivered his first crown in Rome!
His forehand couldn't carry him in those moments, making two easy mistakes from his stronger wing to squander a massive opportunity, with Rafa shooting a forehand winner to set up the deciding tie break and gather the momentum.
Finding himself 4-2 down there, the Spaniard struck a beautiful forehand that switched the impulse to his side of the net before Roger gained a 5-3 advantage, moving two points away from victory. His forehand cost him a lot again, netting an easy shot that could have brought him three match points and letting Nadal back to 5-5 after yet another marvelous rally that he controlled with his forehand.
A service winner gave the Spaniard his first match point and he completed the win with a forced error from Roger, celebrating the greatest moment of his young career besides that 2005 Roland Garros crown and earning the place among the tennis immortals few weeks before the 20th birthday.