He's experienced close calls throughout each of his 12 Roland Garros title runs. But every time, Rafael Nadal has ultimately shown a killer instinct. Today, we look back at the Spaniard's return to the French capital after triumphing on his debut a year earlier.
2006 FRENCH OPEN
A different kind of pressure surrounds a player when entering an event as defending champion. When you haven’t lost on a surface in 53 matches, every challenger yearns to be ‘the one’ who ends your reign. Nadal undoubtedly felt the added weight on his shoulders and in his legs at the Paris major in 2006.
Counterpunchers Paul-Henri Mathieu and Lleyton Hewitt provided periods of discomfort for the second seed to decipher, and those experiences would boost Nadal in his rematch with Roger Federer, who he'd beaten in the semifinals in 2005. Nadal swiftly put Federer’s impeccable start in the title match behind him, improving his unbeaten run on the red dirt to 60 matches.
Most impressive win: Third round; Nadal d. Mathieu, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4
From a feisty Frenchman to a stubborn banana peel, everything was thrown Nadal’s way on the first day of his 20s. Mathieu, a former junior champion, played tug of war with the birthday boy for four hours and 53 minutes–93 of those in the first set alone. By the end, Nadal’s precision and variety tipped the scale to surmount Mathieu’s heavy hitting and home-crowd advantage.
Closest call: Final; Nadal d. Federer, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (3)
Four weeks prior, Nadal edged Federer to win an instant classic final in Rome. Aiming to be the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major titles simultaneously, Federer came out blazing with pinpoint accuracy, but Nadal pounced on the Maestro’s dip in form to take control. A possible fifth set loomed when Federer broke for 5-5 in the fourth, except Nadal had plans to finish writing this chapter, putting pen to paper with a commanding tiebreak performance for his sixth victory in seven meetings with the Swiss.