June 3, 2005: Rafael Nadal tops Roger Federer for maiden Grand Slam final

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June 3, 2005: Rafael Nadal tops Roger Federer for maiden Grand Slam final

Rafael Nadal had entered the 2005 season just outside the Top 50 but he had no intention to stay there for too long, reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open at the age of 18 and winning titles in Sao Paulo and Acapulco before battling in the final of Miami with world number 1 Roger Federer for three hours and 43 minutes. A teenager was the player to beat on clay in April and May as well, conquering his first Masters 1000 titles in Monte Carlo and Rome, wrapping up the Barcelona crown in between as well, heading to Roland Garros as one of the favorites for the title despite his young age and the fact he never played in Paris before (he missed 2004 edition due to an injury).

Rafa proved his class once again, dropping one set in the first five matches to advance into the semi-final where he faced Roger Federer on his 19th birthday on June 3. This was the third chapter of the rivalry that would become one of the biggest in the history of the game and the first at Majors after they split two previous encounters in Miami.

Roger was already the dominant figure in men's tennis, sitting on the ATP throne for the last 15 months and hoping to complete all four Majors at the age of 23, bouncing back after winning just two matches in Paris in the previous three seasons to move two matches away from the title.

There was only one small problem in Roger's plans and hopes, the fact that Nadal wanted the title like nothing else, eager to prove his ultimate class on his beloved surface and to write his own history. To emphasize it again, Nadal just turned 19 when this match occurred but that only gave him an extra confidence, toppling Roger 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3 in two hours and 47 minutes for the place in his first Grand Slam final! Rafa had become the fifth youngest Grand Slam finalist in the Open era behind Michael Chang, Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg and he earned the win after delivering the better tennis in the crucial moments, losing serve six times and breaking Roger on nine occasions from 13 chances he created.

Nothing could separate them in the shortest and mid-range points but Nadal made the difference in the more extended rallies, taming his shots in a more efficient way and engineering the points more superior than Roger to emerge as a winner and continue his dream run that would end with the trophy in his hands two days later.

The plan was simple for both, Roger was trying to impose his serve and forehand, keeping the rallies short and staying away from unforced errors from his backhand side, which didn't work for him. He ended up the match with too many mistakes and he failed to convert more chances on the return and make the most more interesting, winning 11 points less than his young rival.

Nadal was off to a best possible start, breaking Roger's serve in the opening game of the match and confirming the lead after deuces in game two. A forehand winner gave the Spaniard another break in game five but Roger pulled it back in the following game with a backhand cross court winner, keeping himself in the set for few more games.

The Swiss had to save another break point in game seven, firing a forehand winner but missing the next one to give another break to his rival and find himself 5-2 down. Serving for the set, Rafa wasted two set points to get broken but he stayed focused and grabbed the fourth break of the set in game nine for a 6-3 after 43 minutes.

Roger opened the second set with a break of serve at 1-1 after a poor forehand from Nadal and he had the edge in those moments, with four more break chances up for grabs in game five. He converted the last one after a forced error from Rafa and he held at love with a drop shot winner to move 5-1 ahead.

Just like Nadal in the opening set, Roger failed to close the set on own serve in game eight and the Spaniard won three games in a row to move closer, needing another break in game 10 to extend the set. Instead of that, Roger delivered a fine hold for a 6-4, looking good and motivated to fight against the superior clay courter until the very last point.

The third set started with five easy holds on both sides and Federer had two game points to level the score at 3-3 and shift the pressure back to the other side of the net. Out of sudden, Rafa claimed four points in a row, scoring a break with a smash winner to move 4-2 ahead, only to net the forehand in the following game and lose his advantage.

Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Federer fends off two set points but Nadal was not to be denied, converting the third with a drive volley winner to move a set away from the place in the final. Roger had to reset his game and to start all over in set number four, breaking Nadal in game three after a poor forehand from the Spaniard and jumping into a 3-1 lead following another error from Nadal's strongest wing.

Rafa made a quick hold in game five with a smash winner and the pivotal moment occurred in the next game when Roger squandered two game points that would send him 4-2 in front. Instead of that, he netted an easy forehand to lose serve and all the momentum he has been accumulating since the beginning of the set.

Nadal held in game seven after yet another loose forehand from Federer and he created a break point at 4-3 thanks to more errors from his rival. Roger couldn't defend his backhand and his serve went away, giving the fourth straight game to the Spaniard who was now serving for the match.

A forehand and a smash winner gave Rafa two match points and he converted the first when Roger sent a forehand long to fall down to the ground and celebrate another huge result in that breakthrough spring that defined his career for good.

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