Nadal takes the next step, and puts on his big-boy piratas, in Coria epic

April 23, 2023

This Rome final has been overshadowed by what came the following year on the same stage, but it’s equally as impressive

Nadal takes the next step, and puts on his big-boy piratas, in Coria epic

As 36-year-old Rafael Nadal ramps up for what may be his final swing through the clay courts of Europe, we look back at the matches that made him the undisputed King of Clay.

MATCH 1: 2003 Monte Carlo, second round: Nadal d. Albert Costa, 7-5, 6-3

MATCH 2: 2004 Davis Cup, final: Nadal d. Andy Roddick, 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-2

Epic. Marathon. Corker. Blockbuster. Lungbuster. All of the words that we typically use to describe memorable tennis matches can easily apply to Nadal’s five-set, five-hour win over Guillermo Coria in the 2005 Rome final. From an historical perspective, the match has been overshadowed, perhaps understandably, by the marathon that Nadal and Roger Federer would stage on the same court 12 months later. But when it comes to raw physicality and determination, as well as unexpected twists and turns in the plot, this one is still tough to top, even 18 years later. It’s enough to make you wish that Masters 1000 finals were still best-of-five-set affairs.

In the first two matches in our King of Clay countdown, we’ve seen Nadal beat a good dirt-baller and French Open champion in Albert Costa, and a former No. 1 in Andy Roddick. Coria marks an important next step. While he never closed the deal at Roland Garros-he had two match points in the 2004 final-Coria was the world’s best on the surface at the time. He had reached five Masters 1000 finals on dirt in 2003 and 2004, winning two of them. At 5’9”, Coria wasn’t big enough to play the power game, but his light feet, deft touch and natural court sense earned him the nickname El Mago-The Magician-from his fellow Argentines.

In 2003, Coria ended 16-year-old Rafa’s debut run at Monte Carlo in the third round. Two years later, Nadal turned that result around in the final of the same event for his first Masters 1000 title. When he followed that up with this bruising victory in Rome a month later, it felt like the “world’s best dirt-baller” title had changed hands. At the very least, this match showed that Nadal could (a) already play with the world’s best on clay; and (b) he could hold his nerve and come out on top in a five-set final. Two months earlier, he had lost another five-setter, to Federer in Miami, after being up two sets to none. This time it was Rafa who staged the unlikely 11th-hour comeback.

What a fan might notice to start, though, is that Nadal has completed his early fashion ensemble for the first time in our countdown. We saw the sleeveless shirt in his win over Roddick; now it’s paired with knee-length piratas. He would keep that combination going all the way until the 2009 Australian Open. Watching a replay of this match, I was also reminded of an early Rafa ritual that faded away over the years: His habit of constantly making sure his socks are the same height.

Game-wise, it’s Nadal’s intensity level, as always, that feels new for the mid-aughts. You might not expect someone to be in top gear in the first set of a best-of-five match, but Rafa isn’t afraid to go there right away. It’s all Coria can do to withstand the early barrage of forehands, and the grunts that accompany them. Along with the brute power, Nadal had no trouble matching Coria in the subtler aspects of the clay game, too. We see Rafa work his own brand of magic here, with a reflex volley that lands a few inches from the baseline, a redrop that crawls over the net by a centimeter, and plenty of sharply angled passing shots and volleys. Rafa was always a student of court geometry.

But at 18 he could still go off for extended periods. That happens in the second set, as he loses control of his forehand, and the momentum. “He’s fallen into a very erratic patch,” British commentator John Barrett says.

A second erratic patch lasts long enough that it appears as if it will cost him the match. Nadal loses the fourth set, and goes down 0-3, 0-30 in the fifth. He hangs his head and walks dejectedly between points, two things we won’t often see from him in the coming years. Coria, who looks sure to win, even takes a moment to imitate the now-famous Nadal fist-pump.

But then, at 0-30, a Nadal forehand finds the corner for a winner, and he raises his head a little higher. After another winning point, he tries his first fist-pump of the set. When he breaks and holds, he’s back to his leaping, Vamos-ing self. From there, the two players are off again down the homestretch, pushing each other all over the court, finding sharper angles and making more amazing gets with each game.

“Both of them are finding absolutely miraculous shots,” Barrett says, briefly forsaking his usual penchant for understatement.

The twists continue into the fifth-set tiebreaker. This time it’s Nadal who blows a 5-1 lead, and who double faults on his third match point. But he never stops firing his forehand, and never gives up on a ball, Finally, it’s Coria who makes the last error, and Rafa who ends up flat on his back, his legs stretched all the way over his head, in celebration. No match can go on forever, even Nadal-Coria in Rome.

Coming into 2005, it looked as if Coria and Federer would duel their way through the clay season, and possibly for clay seasons to come. But Nadal blew all of that up in one four-tournament swoop through Valencia, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. After this win, he would go to Roland Garros for the first time, already the favorite to win it all.

“I played today one of the toughest matches of my life,” Rafa said after beating Coria. It’s still true today. –

Nadal takes the next step, and puts on his big-boy piratas, in Coria epic