One day, one epic match: Nadal - Mathieu (3rd round 2006)

Relive the match between Rafael Nadal and Paul-Henri Mathieu at the third round of Roland-Garros 2006

Nadal during the third round at Roland-Garros 2006©Christophe Saidi / FFT
 - Simon Cambers invites you to experience the 2020 tournament on the original dates by looking back at some of the most memorable matches from the past, round by round. Today, Friday May 29, we go back to 2006 and an epic encounter between Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, and the young Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round.

The context

A few days before turning 20 - his birthday falls during the second week of Roland-Garros – Nadal arrived in Paris as the defending champion and was already well on his way to becoming the King of Clay, having swept all before him in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome in the build-up to the second Grand Slam event of the year. The previous year, Nadal had won the title at the first attempt, was a huge favourite to make it two out of two and had cruised through his first two rounds.

Mathieu was France’s latest big hope, having won the junior title at Roland-Garros in 2000. After winning two titles in 2002, his confidence was dented two years later when he let slip a two-set lead to lose the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup final. However, he had begun 2006 with his best effort yet at a Grand Slam event, reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open.

PHM against Nadal at Roland-Garros 2006©Christophe Guibbaud/ FFT

The match

This was a good old-fashioned slug-fest. The two men traded blow after blow from the baseline, mixing power with touch as they hammered each other into corners and then used the drop shot into the open court. On average, each game lasted seven minutes, each rally seemed to go on for ever and the first set alone lasted 93 minutes. The crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier were enthralled and ready for the long haul.

Mathieu gave them even more to shout about when he pinched the first set but Nadal hit back to take the second and was serving for a two sets to one lead at 5-4 in the third when he suddenly approached the umpire. Mathieu and the crowd did not know what was wrong as Nadal sat in his chair, discussing his issue first with the trainer and then the doctor.

Rafael Nadal with the doctor during his match against Paul-Henri Mathieu ©Christophe Guibbaud/ FFT

It was only when he gestured and then shouted over to his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, that the reason for the break became clear. At the previous changeover, he had eaten a banana and it seems a little piece of it had got stuck in his windpipe.

As Bud Collins, the legendary writer and broadcaster who was covering the match courtside for American TV network NBC, said: “Some people slip on bananas but what happened to Rafa Nadal was that he had a banana he was eating, caught in his throat. He seems to be alright now. That’s the first time I’ve seen a trainer have to take care of something like that.

If the French crowd thought it would upset his rhythm, however, they were to be disappointed as Nadal held serve to win the set and move ahead. The fourth set was just as close as the others, with more breaks of serve and more relentless baseline rallies and long, drawn out games. But it was the Spaniard who edged ahead again and after four hours and 53 minutes of gruelling, exhausting tennis, he emerged a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 winner.

What they said

"I didn't want to stop, because I was worried that it might look bad and that people might think I was doing it on purpose," Nadal said. "It was an important part of the match. But after a little while it started to bother me. I was starting to feel nervous and scared. I had a strange sensation. I preferred to stop before I had a big problem."

Match stats

The match contained 14 breaks of serve and though Mathieu saved 21 of the 29 break points he faced, Nadal racked up his 56th straight win on clay.

What happened next ?

Nadal had to work hard to get past Lleyton Hewitt in four sets in the next round but it was plain sailing thereafter until the final, where he held off Roger Federer in four sets to retain his Roland-Garros crown. Since then, he’s added 10 more Roland-Garros titles and with 19 Grand-Slam titles to his name, he is just one behind Federer in the all-time list.

Mathieu never made it past the fourth round of any Grand Slam but was part of many great matches, particularly at Roland-Garros. His ranking peaked at No 12 in 2008. He retired in 2017.

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