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Nadal beats Federer, wins 53rd straight match on clay

5/14/2006 - Tennis

ROME -- Rafael Nadal still has the edge against Roger
Federer. The gap is closing, though.

In a showdown between the world's top two players, Nadal beat
Federer in a fifth-set tiebreaker Sunday to successfully defend his
Rome Masters title and tie Guillermo Vilas' record 53-match winning
streak on clay in the Open era.

Nadal, a 19-year-old Spaniard ranked No. 2, won 6-7 (0), 7-6
(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5) in 5 hours, 5 minutes. He improved to 5-1
against the No. 1-ranked Swiss.

Federer dropped to 39-3 this year, with his only losses coming
to Nadal. Nadal also won a matchup at Dubai in March.

In the Monte Carlo final last month, Nadal beat Federer in a
fourth-set tiebreaker. Both tournaments are clay-court warmups for
the French Open, which starts in two weeks. Another of Nadal's wins
over Federer came in the semifinals at Roland Garros last year.

"Obviously I would have liked to win, but I already knew after
Monaco I was extremely close," Federer said. "I think this is
another step closer."

Federer led 4-1 in the fifth set and the top-ranked Swiss wasted
two match points at 6-5, both with errant forehands.

"I should have won," Federer said. "He caught me right at the
finish line."

Nadal has won nine straight tournaments on clay. His 16th title
also tied him with Bjorn Borg for most titles won as a teenager.

"It's very difficult to win every tournament, 53 matches is a
lot of matches," Nadal said.

Vilas set his streak in 1977, beginning with a win in May at the
French Open and ending with a loss to Ilie Nastase in October in
Aix en Provence, France.

Nadal can break the record with a win against Tommy Haas in the
first round of the Hamburg Masters next week.

Nadal also won a fifth-set tiebreaker in last year's final,
beating Guillermo Coria in 5:14 -- the longest final of the Open
era.

"I think Federer was maybe tougher to beat. He's more
aggressive and serves very well," Nadal said, eating his
traditional post-match plate of pasta at Foro Italico. "If he hits
a good serve and he comes in with his forehand, there is nothing
you can do."

"In fact, I was lucky when he had match point he made a mistake
with two forehands," Nadal added.

Federer employed more aggressive tactics than he did in the
Monte Carlo final, where he lost serve seven times. He
served-and-volleyed sparingly, but aimed for the corners and
followed his baseline shots into the net at every opportunity.
Nadal broke serve only three times.

"For me just to hit and move backwards again, that's not the
way I learned the game," Federer said. "My way of thinking is
come to the net and finish it at the net."

Nadal played his usual baseline game, and his heavy left-handed
top spin gave Federer problems. The Swiss star shanked several
shots high into the stands.

Federer won 64 of 84 points at the net. Nadal came forward only
30 times, and won 18 points.

"He hardly passed me today, which was a good feeling," Federer
said. "So I have to keep that up."