“Oh, yes,” says the commentator over and over. Until he gives up and says, “Oh, come on.” The semifinal between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the 2006 World Tour Finals—then known as the Masters Cup—in Shanghai was that kind of match. Federer would win by the deceptively one-sided score of 6-4, 7-5. We may never know what the greatest match of all time is, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this, a go-for-broke slugfest from start to finish, was the best 6-4, 7-5 match ever played.
As we prepare, five years later, for another duel between these two players at the same event, a few notes on the best of their three WTF matches past.
—It’s hard to rate this among the Nadal-Federer classics. It stands alone, different from the epic five-setters in Rome, Melbourne, and at Wimbledon. At the time, I likened it to a boxing classic: The five-setter they played in Rome that year was an Ali-Frazier 15-rounder; this was a compressed bloodletting along the lines of the three-rounder between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns—known as the War (see it in all of its scary glory here)—in 1985. On a fast surface in Shanghai, Nadal and Federer stood toe-to-toe and swung out, and they did it from the first game. As the commentator says after the first point shown in this highlight reel: “It hasn’t taken Nadal long to warm up, either.”
—I’ve never missed Nadal’s sleeveless look, but it was certainly a look, and it fit him back then. He’s 20 at the time, and seems a little springier than he does today. Nadal’s backhand, at least in this match, looks better than it has recently; but his serve, with a different, more straightforward motion, was weaker, had less bite.
—This was the end of Federer’s greatest season, 2006, in which he went 92-5, won three Slams, 12 tournaments, and reached the final of 16 of 17 events he entered (it stands as the second-best in the Open era, in my opinion, after Laver's 1969; Novak Djokovic's 2011 could supplant it, but only if he wins the WTF this week). At the same time, it was the first peak year for this rivalry. Nadal won in Monte Carlo, Rome, and Paris, but Federer stemmed the tide in their first Wimbledon final. Looking at Federer, he doesn't appear to have changed much, at least to my eyes. He’s playing extremely well in these highlights—there’s nothing but winners from both guys here—but is he faster or springier or more powerful or better in general? I can’t tell.
—One thing Federer had going on this day, and which he also had going in their final in London last year, was his topspin backhand. But you can see that even when he hits it well against Nadal, it’s an effort for him to get the racquet up and around and over the ball in time, not just to hit it back, but to do anything aggressive with it. He was determined to do it in this match, and he connected. Still, it’s obvious, even from his good swings, that Nadal’s spin is something special.
—The Shanghai crowd hasn’t changed. They showed up for the marquee match, and they showed their delight, vocally, during the more exciting rallies. Hopefully they’ll never learn not to do that.
—Another familiar aspect: Federer gets up a break on Nadal in the first set, then gets tighter than he does against anyone else. He misses a “duck” overhead and is broken. But he’s playing too well on this day to blow it, and he breaks Nadal back for the set.
—The first time I saw Federer play Nadal, at Key Biscayne in 2004, I watched as Federer tried one of his standard plays by bringing Nadal forward with a little slice crosscourt backhand. Where that shot left right-handed players with an uncomfortably low backhand, Nadal, the lefty, just ran up and drilled it for a crosscourt winner. It was clear that this wasn’t going to be a typical matchup for Federer. Late in this match, he tries the same ploy, and suffers the same result.
—At deuce in the final game, it happens again, but this time Federer tracks down Nadal’s crosscourt forehand and, from outside the alley, knocks off what has to be one of the best down the line backhands of his career (second, perhaps, only to the one he hit to save match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker in the 2008 Wimbledon final). Federer follows that backhand up at match point by tracking down a Nadal drop shot and sending another screamer, this time with a forehand, past him for the match. Federer had been forced to show his very best, and he knew it. This was an uncontrolled celebration: a drop to the court, a primal yell—I wonder if he said,"Oh, yes!"—and a full-throttle, over the shoulder fist pump. It felt like more than a win; it felt, after his losses to Nadal earlier that year, like vindication. Federer had ended his best season in the best way possible.
—But the two players saved the finest moment for last, and showed again that they do have a special rivalry, even beyond the forehands and backhands. Done with their war, done with their handshake, they walked to the end of the net and crossed over. As they passed, each gave the other one last slap on the back.
Enjoy Nadal-Federer, Part 26 today. I'll be back with the Racquet Reaction on Tennis.com later.