Roger Federer made a strong start of his 2003 clay-court swing, winning the title in Munich in dominant style to take home the seventh ATP crown. With no time for celebration, the 21-year-old went south and entered the draw of the Masters 1000 event in Rome, not having good results there in the past.
That all changed that year, as Roger beat Paul-Henri Mathieu, Mariano Zabaleta, Tommy Robredo, Filippo Volandri and Juan Carlos Ferrero, dropping one set en route to his third Masters 1000 final and the second on clay after Hamburg 2002.
Hoping to win back-to-back titles on the slowest surface, Federer faced Felix Mantilla and suffered a 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 loss in two hours and 41 minutes, losing for the first time since Miami and switching his focus on the title defense in Hamburg.
Mantilla fended off 14 out of 17 break chances, staying composed when it mattered the most and sealing the deal in straight sets for his tenth and last ATP title, also the first on the Masters 1000 level.
Roger Federer lost the final in Rome 2003 to Felix Mantilla despite having chances.
The Spaniard won just seven points more than the Swiss, forging the advantage in the shortest and mid-range exchanges, while Federer had the upper hand in the most advanced rallies, not enough to take at least a set.
Roger wasted his opportunities in the opening set and got broken in the worst moment at 5-6. He then opened a 2-0 advantage in set number two, only to drop the next eight games and find himself 7-5, 6-2, 2-0 down, propelling Mantilla closer to the finish line.
Out of a sudden, Federer grabbed four straight games to open a 4-2 advantage, serving for the set at 5-4 and squandering two sets points to bring Felix back to 5-5. The Spaniard fended off no less than seven break chances in the 11th game to set up a tie break where Federer saved two match points, missing a slice backhand on the set point and sending a forehand long at 8-9 to push the rival over the top.
"It's always terrible when you miss your chances early on. When you waste the first five break chances or so, it gets to your head mentally. I always played well until the break points, and then I would fall; I don't understand why, as I tried to remain aggressive.
It didn't go my way, and it's very disappointing to lose a set in that way. Also, I led in sets two and three and lost them both, which is extremely frustrating. Mantilla plays the patient game, not rushing anything and doing the same things all the time; it's a bit boring if you ask me.
It doesn't matter if you hit a good or bad shot; the ball comes back the same way. You have to understand that a good stroke won't mean you will be better positioned on the court. You have to watch out how you play," Roger Federer said.