2004 was a significant year for both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, as they set the stage for one of the greatest rivalries in the sport’s history. Roger became world no. 1 in February and lost to the 17-year-old Rafael Nadal just a month later in Miami, with the Spaniard proving to be Federer’s closest rival.
Roger got his revenge in Miami a year later, beating Nadal in a grueling five-setter before Rafa moved in front in the head-to-head meetings after his triumph in the Roland Garros semi-final. Their fourth clash came in Dubai 2006, and Nadal defeated his great rival and the defending champion 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in an hour and 53 minutes on March 4, claiming the 13th ATP title and the fourth consecutive on hard courts!
A foot injury forced Nadal to skip all the events between Madrid at the end of 2005 and Marseille in February 2006, competing only for the second time after a comeback in Dubai, motivated to make some ground after skipping significant events like the Masters Cup and the Australian Open.
Also, Rafa ended Roger’s unmatched streak on the hard courts that started in Rotterdam a year earlier, becoming the first player to beat the Swiss after 56 consecutive wins on the most common surface, an Open era record that will hardly be matched.
Roger was in the league of his own in the first set before Rafa prepared a counter-attack in set number two and brought the match home in under two hours for one of the most significant wins of the season. Thanks to that opening set, Federer won seven points more than Nadal but got broken in the ninth game of sets two and three to find himself on the losing side after winning three consecutive Dubai crowns.
They both scored three breaks of serve, and it was Nadal who arranged his winning return games better to emerge as a winner. The Spaniard served at 70% and needed that against such a strong rival, staying in touch in his service games after the first set and waiting for a return chance patiently.
Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in Dubai 2006 final.
Roger had better percentages on both the first and second serve but those two late breaks he suffered cost him dearly, having no time to pull them back and extend the encounter.
Nadal followed Federer’s pace in the shortest rallies, hitting well after the serve or with his first groundstroke on the return and outplaying Roger in the mid-range exchanges up to eight strokes. Surprisingly, Federer had a clear edge in the points with ten strokes or more, although that wasn’t enough to carry him over the finish line and extend the unbeaten Dubai run.
The defending champion had the match in his hands right from the start, winning four points in a row on the return in game two for a 2-0 lead and sealing the break with a crosscourt forehand winner that sent him further in front.
Nadal was pretty much powerless on the return in the entire set, losing serve at love in game eight to drop the opener 6-2 in just 28 minutes. Roger was on a roll, setting the pace with his forehand and punishing every shorter ball from his opponent to create a 30-0 lead on the return in the second set’s second game.
Rafa delivered four good points for a pivotal hold that gave him the necessary confidence, finally creating a break chance in game five when Roger netted a backhand. The Swiss saved it to keep his serve intact but couldn’t do the same at 4-4 when Nadal broke at love with a forehand winner and served for the set.
The Spaniard held at 30 after a volley error from Federer, and the match was very much alive now, with the momentum switching to Nadal’s side of the net. The Spanish teenager broke again at the decider’s beginning with a beautiful forehand crosscourt winner, becoming the court’s ruler and the favorite to seal the deal and claim the title.
Federer restored his shots and was back on the level terms following a break in game four, confirming it with a hold at love a few minutes later for a 3-2 advantage. They both served well in the following three games, and the crucial moment occurred in game nine when Roger sprayed a forehand error to drop serve and move Rafa a game away from the championship.
World no. 2 needed no second invitation and completed his triumph with a hold at love to celebrate the title after Roger’s forced backhand error. Nadal broke into tears before the trophy ceremony; mighty relieved he was back on the winning way for the first time since October last year and such a long break.