It will take some classic finals in Grand Slam tournaments before their rivalry can be compared to that of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, but the early signs are promising. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Nos 1 and 2 in the world, contested their third final of the year in the Rome Masters here yesterday and served up an absolute thriller.
Nadal won 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 after a match lasting five hours and five minutes to extend both his remarkable winning run on clay and his superiority over Federer. It was the Spaniard's 53rd successive win on clay, equalling the 29-year-old record set by Guillermo Vilas, and his fifth victory in his six matches against Federer.
The world No 1 has lost only three matches this year and they have all been finals against the Spanish teenager, who won here 12 months ago in another five-hour final, against Guillermo Coria. However, if Federer played below his best against Nadal in Dubai and Monte Carlo, and had performed scratchily en route to the final here, there was little you could fault with his performance yesterday.
Federer has always insisted that the way he can beat Nadal is to go for his shots. He did so here with conviction, hitting freely down both flanks and regularly coming into the net, where he won a steady flow of points thanks as much to the depth and weight of his approach shots as to the potency of his volleys.
Nadal, however, is the most dogged retriever in tennis and the packed crowd at the Foro Italico were treated to a succession of thrilling rallies. Federer, constantly forced to play the extra shot, inevitably made errors, while Nadal was always ready to punish anything that was short. The Spaniard's stamina was extraordinary as he threw himself around court, chasing down drop shots and returning what had looked like clean winners.
The first set contained some breathtaking tennis as Federer immediately went on the attack. The Swiss played a superb tie-break, which he won 7-0 with an array of attacking strokes. An hour later, however, Nadal recovered from 4-2 down to win the second set tie-break 7-5 as Federer's standards suddenly slipped.
When Nadal took the third set with a break in the fifth game the balance seemed to have shifted decisively. However, Federer dug deep to save two break points at the start of the fourth set and then broke serve - for only the second time in nearly three and a half hours of tennis - to lead 3-1. The Swiss broke again to take the set 6-2 and set up a dramatic finale.
The first five games of the fifth set, four of which went to deuce, took half an hour as Nadal's indomitable spirit was matched by Federer's brilliance. Federer broke to lead 3-1 thanks to a sublime backhand volley and a glorious forehand down the line, Nadal broke back three games later and the Spaniard held on as Federer wasted two match points with poor shots at 5-6.
In the final tie-break, early breaks were traded before Federer went 4-2 up with an exquisite inside-out cross-court forehand winner. From 5-3, however, he made four successive errors - three on the forehand and one on the backhand - to hand victory to Nadal. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary match.
* Larry Stefanki, who used to work with Tim Henman, is on the shortlist to become Andy Murray's new coach. Stefanki, who is based in California, also coached Marcelo Rios and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
* In Berlin, the women's world No 4, Nadia Petrova, battled back from a set down to beat the French Open champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a thrilling German Open final yesterday.