The second of Rafael Nadal’s 13 French Open titles came at the 2006 edition where he had entered as the defending champion.
The year had not started according to plan for the teenager from Mallorca as he was forced to miss the Australian Open due to a left foot injury. In fact, Nadal had not played a professional tennis match since winning the Madrid Masters in October 2005, a year in which he played a tour-high 89 matches. At that time, the then World No. 2 Nadal said, "The Australian Open is too important a tournament for me to go to without having an option to win it."
Nadal started his clay court season in solid fashion by defending his Monte Carlo Masters title on April 23 after a 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5) win over World No. 1 Roger Federer in a summit clash that lasted almost four hours. He followed it up by clinching the trophy in Barcelona next week. His final clay court event before heading to Paris was Rome Masters. Nadal reached the final while dropping just one set on the way. In the title decider on May 14, Nadal was once again facing Federer, their third meeting of the year so far (Nadal had also beaten the Swiss superstar in the final in Dubai on March 5).
If there were ever any doubts about whether the ‘Fedal’ rivalry could be a generation-defining one, the duel, on Campo Centrale, the centre court of the Foro Italico sports complex in the Italian capital, that day cleared them all. After battling it out for five hours and five minutes, it was Nadal who emerged victorious beating Federer 6-7, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5).
The Basel native had actually won more points than Nadal (179 to 174). He even had his chances - two championship points at 6-5 (40-15) on Nadal’s serve in the fifth set which he squandered with inaccurate forehand shots - and a 5-3 lead in the tiebreaker. However, the Spaniard stepped up when it mattered.
The win took Nadal’s incredible unbeaten streak on clay to 53 matches, matching Argentine Guillermo Vilas’ 29-year-old male record. But the Rome finale had set up the French Open nicely, as what Federer nearly did might have given confidence to others.
Two weeks later, Federer and Nadal were seeded first and second at Roland Garros - which meant another epic final was on the cards. Nadal began his title defence in Paris with a tricky first round win against World No. 50 Robin Soderling of Sweden followed by a more comfortable one against Kevin Kim of the US.
The third round was when Nadal was truly tested for the first time. One of the local favourites, Paul-Henri Mathieu had lost to Nadal earlier in the year on hard court in Marseille and Dubai but in that third-round clash on Nadal’s 20th birthday, the Frenchman did not go down on the clay of Philippe-Chatrier without a fight. The junior French Open champion from 2000 edged Nadal in the battle of the baseliners to take the 93-minute opening set 7-5. Nadal responded by taking the second 6-4.
While serving for the third at 5-4, the Spaniard suddenly approached the umpire, then sat in his chair discussing something first with his trainer and then doctor. As it turned out, Nadal had a piece of banana he had during the previous changeover stuck in his windpipe. Upon the resumption of play, Nadal served the set out and won the fourth one by the same scoreline to win a slugfest of four hours 53 minutes.
Talking about the incident after the match, Nadal said, “I didn't want to stop, because I was worried that it might look bad and that people might think I was doing it on purpose. It was an important part of the match. But after a little while it started to bother me. I was starting to feel nervous and scared. I had a strange sensation. I preferred to stop before I had a big problem."
In the fourth round, Nadal beat two-time Major winner Lleyton Hewitt of Australia 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 before facing another rising youngster in Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. The duo’s first-ever meeting ended when Djokovic retired with a back injury after losing the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. Nadal won his semifinal 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (7) against World No. 4 Croatian Ivan Ljubicic and reached the final for the second consecutive year.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Nadal, a genius on clay
From the other half of the draw, Federer made it to the final after spending five hours 10 minutes less than Nadal on the court.
The final on 6 May 2006 was a historic occasion as Federer was one win away from becoming just the third man after American Don Budge and Australian Rod Laver to hold all four Majors at the same time. He made an impressive start to achieve the same by running away with the opening set in next to no time. From there on, it was all Nadal as first, he levelled the scores by taking the second set with the same scoreline of 6-1 and then, he moved ahead by winning the third 6-4. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth, Nadal faltered allowing Federer to break him and force the tiebreaker but it only delayed the inevitable. Nadal won the tiebreaker to clinch the fourth set 7-6 (4).
Nadal stretched his unbeaten streak on clay to 60 matches while also becoming the first player to beat Federer in the final of a Grand Slam.
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