Having announced his retirement recently, the Swiss tennis player and icon, Roger Federer, played his final competitive match, partnering with Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in a men’s doubles match in the Laver Cup, in London on Friday.
In his remarkably illustrious career, Federer spent 310 weeks as the world No. 1, won 103 singles titles, and became the first man to collect 20 grand slam titles. With his elegant and mystifying style of tennis, he’s marvelled and inspired millions around the globe.
If you take out time and ponder over his retirement and what he means to tennis, you would ask yourself, albeit childishly: Was his journey even real? It sure felt like an alluring, never-ending dream. But, after all, it was a reality bound by its temporality. When this realisation finally hits, you’re simultaneously filled with heaps of gratitude because you had the sheer luck to witness the countless moments of joy and wonder this reality offered.
It lasted nearly 24 years, and we saw the painter of this reality, the now 41-year-old Federer, reach the pinnacle of the sport, setting the standards and transforming the ways of tennis in the process.
Alongside him, helping him transform his game and the sport itself, was his great rival and an equally great friend, Rafael Nadal – the player who introduced me to tennis and subsequently made me fall in love with it.
Through watching and zealously supporting the Spaniard over the years in his fierce battles against the Swiss, I learned to adore the latter. In a way, the admiration I have for Nadal and many of his qualities such as fortitude, meticulousness, and perseverance, aided me in defamiliarising his eternal rival’s grace, sophisticated simplicity, and easy-on-the-eye eloquence.
To understand how this materialised, let’s go back to the mid-to-late 2000s. This was the time when the rivalry was at its zenith, and I lived in a tennis-crazy joint family where everyone (five people) barring me was in awe of Federer, and always in his camp. As a lone ‘Rafan’, the stakes were too high for me in all of their crucial matches – and believe me, there was a plethora of them.
From 2005 to 2010, these two finished in the top 2 of ATP rankings. During the same period, out of 24 grand slams, they together claimed 21 of them. Every French Open and Wimbledon final from 2006 to 2008 was played between them. In total, they’ve faced each other in 24 finals. Overall, they’ve competed against one another on 40 occasions, with Nadal winning 24 times. However, the gap is somewhat distorted because of the Spaniard’s dominance over Federer on the clay surface (14-2).
The process of defamiliarisation, which I mentioned above, happened for me with the passage of time, as I discerned more about their personalities and saw their friendship grow. What struck me the most, and still does, is the uniquely unadulterated and heart-warming ethos of their camaraderie.
Their companionship brewed in an otherwise hostile environment of heatedly-contested, elite men’s tennis, where the two of them, for very long, were pitted against each other for the grandest of the laurels. While there have been great rivalries in tennis and in sport where the opponents have respected each other’s abilities, the competitive and capitalistic nature of modern sports doesn’t usually offer space for what Federer and Nadal have managed to carve out, that too while still being active players.
When either of them speaks in public, the regard they hold for the other is very perceptible. “If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person don’t know nothing about tennis,” is one of the many times Nadal has openly showered his esteem for the Swiss player.
Federer also hasn’t stopped himself from candidly articulating the importance Nadal harbours in his career. “I’ve been around the game 17 years. I’ve seen a lot of inspiring players, but you’ve been the one in my opinion who has been the most inspiring and most influential and made me the player I am today,” he once said.
Even in the aftermath of the toughest of defeats, they’ve offered each other nothing but humility and comfort. After winning the epic five-set 2009 Australian Open final, which would have seen Federer go past Pete Sampras’ tally of 14 majors, Nadal comforted Federer, who had broken down with tears, by starting his victory speech with, “Well first of all, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now. It’s really tough. Remember, you’re a great champion. You’re one of the best of history and you’re going to better Sampras’ record.”
In a similarly empathetic fashion, eight years later, post another Australian Open classic where Federer eventually triumphed, he said, “There are no draws in tennis but I would have been happy to share this trophy with Rafa tonight.”
The fact that, in his final competitive game, Federer played besides Nadal must have made his farewell all the more emotional. What’s more, Nadal was the first person outside Federer’s inner circle to whom he delivered his retirement news so as to ensure the Spaniard’s availability in this year’s Laver Cup and Nadal only joined the tournament to play one match and share Federer’s special moment alongside him, where the both of them ended up crying, hugging, and holding hands together.
“When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving too,” said Nadal after their doubles match on Friday. On the behalf of fellow Rafans, I can assure you that we feel the same way – after all, such has been the aura, the significance, the magnitude of Roger Federer.
Saurabh Nagpal is a sports writer, who covers tennis, football, and cricket.
Featured image: A tearful Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal look on after his last Laver Cup Tennis match. Photo: Peter van den Berg/USA TODAY Sports/via Reuters