Nadal beats Federer, wins 53rd straight match on clay

Updated: May 14, 2006, 5:16 PM ET
Associated Press

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

Men's Clay-Court Win Streaks*
63 Rafael Nadal April 2005-current
53 Guillermo Vilas May-Sept. 1977
46 Bjorn Borg Oct. 1977- May 1979
40 Thomas Muster Feb.-June 1995
38 Thomas Muster Aug. 1995- April 1996
38 Ilie Nastase May-Oct. 1973
*Open era (since 1968)

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.

Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
career matchups
Tournament Surface Winner
2006 Wimbledon final Grass court Federer, 6-0, 7-6(5), 6-7(2), 6-3
2006 French Open final Clay court Nadal 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(4)
2006 Rome Masters final Clay court Nadal 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5)
2006 Masters Series-Monte Carlo final Clay court Nadal 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-3, 7-6(5)
2006 Dubai Tennis Championships final Hard court Nadal 2-6, 6-4, 6-4
2005 French Open semifinal Clay court Nadal 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3
2005 NASDAQ-100 final Hard court Federer 2-6, 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-1
2004 Miami AMS third round Hard court Nadal 6-3, 6-3

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."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press