Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal started their incredible rivalry on March 28, 2004, when the 17-year-old Spaniard took down world no. 1 in straight sets in Miami, producing one of the biggest surprises that season despite already entering the top-40.
Twelve months later, they reached the final in Miami and Roger prevailed after a titanic battle, ousting Rafa 2-6, 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-1 in three hours and 43 minutes in what has been one of the best ATP finals in the previous two decades!
It was the first Masters 1000 final for an 18-year-old Nadal who became the second-youngest finalist at this series after Michael Chang, having everything in his hands until the middle of the third set and leading 6-2, 7-6, 4-1 before Roger started one of the career-best comebacks to cross the finish line first.
The Swiss took the third set tie break and played better and better as the match progressed to lift the first Miami Masters and also a "Sunshine Double," winning Indian Wells two weeks earlier. Roger won just seven points more than his rival and was two points away from losing in the tenth game of the third set and also in the tie break where Nadal had a 5-3 advantage and a serve for a 6-3 and possible match points, which never happened.
Federer won four points in a row to steal the set in a pivotal moment of the entire encounter, dropping just four games in sets four and five to march towards the finish line and grab the maiden crown in Florida. Surprisingly, the Spaniard was on the same level with the Swiss in the shortest points while Roger took charge in the mid-range exchanges, also staying in touch in the longest rallies that earned the triumph for him in the end against an incredible baseliner.
Nadal defended his second serve more efficiently but had to play against 13 break chances, getting broken on seven occasions, including the last three service games of the match. Federer gave serve away five times from nine opportunities (four in the opening set alone) offered to Nadal.
However, we have to say he raised his level after the third set significantly, delivering fury from the initial shot and keeping the pressure on the other side of the net all the time. It was the 18th consecutive triumph for Roger in the ATP finals and the 22nd victory in a row, the 48th in the last 49 matches for complete domination over the rest of the men's field!
Nadal made the best possible start after breaking in the first game when Roger sent a backhand long, confirming the advantage with a service winner in game two to settle into a nice rhythm. Federer had to play against two more break chances in game five, saving them with a service winner and another one with a volley to avoid an even bigger setback.
The Spaniard was firing on all cylinders, earning the second break at 4-2 after a double fault from Federer and holding at love to forge a 6-2 advantage, looking for more of the same in the rest of the clash in what was his biggest ATP final in a young career.
Things went from bad to worse for world no. 1 who got broken again at the beginning of the second set after a weak volley, leaving himself with a lot of work to be done in the remaining games if he wanted to chase the triumph.
He reacted quickly and pulled the break back in the next game with a return winner, gaining the momentum that drove him towards another break for a 3-1 lead. Roger had a great chance to seal in game eight, missing a routine smash that would have cost him dearly if he had lost in the end.
This shot changed everything, and, out of sudden, Nadal had the upper hand on the court, breaking back in game nine with a forehand return winner before facing two set points in the next game. Roger missed an easy volley on the first and Rafa saved the second to get out of jail and level the score at 5-5, gathering momentum and positive vibes before they headed into a tie break.
There, Nadal fired two winners from both wings to move 5-2 up and the second set was in his hands when Roger netted a forehand at 4-6, taking a massive two sets to love lead and standing a set away from the first Masters 1000 crown.
An 18-year-old had the strings of the encounter firmly in his hands in the third set as well after landing a backhand crosscourt winner in game four that pushed him 3-1 ahead, although this was the last break chance Roger would face in the rest of the encounter, an essential fact in his outstanding comeback!
Rafa saved a break point a few minutes later to increase the advantage and come two games away from the triumph when Federer finally found some rhythm on the return to break back in game seven and reduce the deficit. Looking towards the finish line, Nadal blasted an ace to repel a break opportunity at 4-4, sending the set into a tie break where all the pressure was on Roger who had no room for errors.
Despite that, Nadal forged a 5-3 lead after a forehand error from Federer who was now two points away from the defeat. Keeping his focus on a high level, the Swiss attacked with his forehand to get the mini-break back and avoid facing match points, leveling the score at 5-5 with a brave forehand winner.
Suddenly, his position on the court looked much better, hitting a smash winner for a 6-5 lead and clinching the set when Rafa sprayed a backhand error, rattling off the last four points to remain in the title chase. After missing that one last push that would have sent him over the top, Nadal started to lose ground and netted a backhand to drop serve in the fourth game of the third set, the shot that marked the beginning of his end!
Federer sailed through his service games and seized the set with a forehand drive volley winner in game nine for a 6-3 and the upcoming decider where he was the clear favorite. Rafa wasted a game point at 1-1 and Roger found the way to break him with a forehand down the line winner that sealed the fate of the Spaniard.
There was nothing Rafa could do in the return games and Federer had the upper hand in every segment of the game, creating a 4-1 advantage and sealing the deal with another break at 5-1 for a massive celebration of what was one of the most important triumphs for him that year, standing so close to the exit door in straight sets.
"I'm happy with the way I played; I'm improving. I led two sets to love and was 4-1 up in the third, with that wrong call from the umpire in the eighth game, as Federer's forehand landed long. I'm satisfied with my tennis but not with the outcome.
I lost my power in sets for and five after playing with high confidence in the third, standing so close to the finish line. Still, he showed why he is world no. 1, performing better in the crucial moments and marching towards the win with an early break in the decider.
I was surprised to see Federer throwing his racquet and I thought I was close to victory at that moment. Roger is the player who goes for the shots and makes mistakes; still, when it matters the most, he would find his best shots."