It’s often easy to over-hype a situation. To create this mythical build-up, generate narratives, bring up the history books, infuse suspense… Enough money and good PR can create that for pretty much anything. Oh, and don’t forget the hash-tag!
Now imagine if this hype is about two living legends: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Rivals for 13 years, and this week, team-mates for three days, thanks to the Laver Cup — an event initially promoted with the mouth-watering prospect of the Swiss and Spanish superstars teaming up for doubles for the first time ever.
They promised and they certainly delivered.
In front of 17,000 fans at the O2 Arena in Prague, Nadal and Federer took to the court on Saturday night and defeated Team World’s Jack Sock and Sam Querrey 6-4, 1-6, [10-5] to extend Team Europe’s overall lead to 9-3 heading into the final day of Laver Cup action.
So was it all worth the hype?
‘#FedalUtd’ was trending on social media, thanks to what has to be the most gif-able tennis match we’ve witnessed in years.
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) September 24, 2017
The masterminds behind the whole event — Federer and his management company Team8 — also recorded the doubles pair’s pre-match tactical session with their captain Bjorn Borg.
Who will play on the ad court and who will play on the deuce court? No matter how staged that whole recording looked like, it was still, admittedly, must-see television. You couldn’t look away if you tried.
As much as Federer and Nadal have portrayed a friendly relationship over the years, we’ve only ever seen them share a court for one reason: Competing against each other in a match (with the odd charity event here and there).
They’ve only practiced together once, at the World Tour Finals, since they are first and foremost rivals, and wouldn’t want to expose any details of their games that could be used against them in a match one day.
So when they finally teamed up for doubles on Saturday representing Team Europe, Federer said it was a “great moment”.
“We don’t practice a lot. We don’t show stuff to each other a lot. And we will always and forever be rivals as long as we are active,” assured Federer after the match.
“After this we will be rivals again, thank God, or unfortunately, however you want to see it, but this was something very special.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure sharing the court with Rafa on the same side of the net. Knowing you can trust him in the big moments, seeing his decision-making, seeing his thought process was very interesting, and I will take these memories for a lifetime, for sure.”
Nadal was equally thrilled with the experience, as he sat next to Federer addressing a packed press conference room.
“It was unforgettable day for both of us. After all the history that we have behind us, like rivals, to be together the same part of the court, fighting for a team is something that I think we really enjoyed a lot,” said the 31-year-old Spaniard, who owns a 23-14 record lead over Federer in career meetings.
“The atmosphere for this match and for the whole weekend has been fantastic. Czech crowd here in Prague is doing great. We feel very lucky to be part of this great event for the first time in the history, no?
“And have the possibility to have Roger next to me is, yeah, a huge privilege. Is something that for sure I want to make that happen at some point, and today was the ideal day to make that happen, no?
“Having Bjorn (Borg) and John (McEnroe, Team World captain) there supporting the teams and playing for Europe, having a great team behind us, yeah, I am so happy to enjoy that moment, we enjoyed a lot, but at the same time to win that match.”
Federer spoke earlier today about the secret to Nadal’s longevity. Intense on the court, relaxed off itpic.twitter.com/IzAZmbR5VA
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) September 23, 2017
Indeed so many factors came together to make this a near-perfect spectacle. The O2 Arena crowd has been the unsung hero of the event so far — it’s been a full house for every session since Friday morning — and they’re not just casual fans; these are knowledgeable aficionados who cheered the loudest when the great Rod Laver showed up on the big screen.
The players are all fired up, because who wants to let down Borg or McEnroe or any of the world-class players who are essentially their own team-mates?
With the swanky black (grey?) court, the red and blue lights, the cool graphics on the big screen, and a fancy trophy to play for, named after the only man to achieve the Grand Slam in the Open era… you kind of understand why Nadal said Saturday was the “ideal day” to finally team up with Federer.
The tennis itself was far from perfect but it had its moments — perhaps the messy ones being the most compelling. Whether it was Nadal going for an overhead despite Federer calling it, forcing the Swiss to duck behind and avoid collision, or Federer missing the ball altogether leaving Nadal sprinting across the baseline to no avail.
“Just testing @rafaelnadal’s reaction time obviously,” Federer later joked on Twitter, referring to that blunder.
Federer used the word ‘surreal’ during his press conference when I asked him what it was like sharing a press conference with someone else — and in this case Nadal.
“I was thinking about how weird and special this moment is, actually, going together to a press conference to talk about how we played,” replied the 36-year-old. “But the same match that we won, it’s kind of surreal, actually.”
Federer and Nadal playing on the same side of the net felt, at times, surreal, but it is the small interactions between them before, during, and after the match that were the real reward for anyone watching.
Nadal prefers to play doubles on the deuce side, but for Federer, of course he can switch. Federer joked in the press conference his last doubles match was so long ago that “I hardly remember how to react at the net anymore”. “You did not do too bad,” Nadal was quick to interject.
“I was extremely lucky on the one volley in the break point, I tell you that. That volley was not supposed to go there,” Federer responded.
“A great dropshot,” Nadal quipped back.
When the Spanish portion of the interviews started, Federer sat there trying to keep it together, covering his face as he wanted to crack up listening to his team-mate speak in his native language. It was a reminder of the CNN interview Federer did with Pedro Pinto years ago where he couldn’t stop laughing as the presenter recorded some questions in Spanish.
“You speak so much faster in Spanish,” Federer told Nadal as he attempted to make an excuse for why he was giggling. “Well, I don’t have to think about what I want to say in Spanish,” said Nadal, stating the obvious.
When the presser was over, Federer had one more commitment to fulfill. “I’ll see you later,” the Swiss told Nadal, who clearly had no intention of sticking around site any longer. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nadal mumbled as he waved off his temporary BFF, and soon-to-be rival once again.
Indeed there was huge hype. And yes, this is a new team event that isn’t part of the tour and is yet to create the partisan support you get with the Ryder Cup or Davis Cup. But if Saturday wasn’t special then how come we were all watching?
It was historic to see two all-time greats, who are somehow currently No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, become doubles partners for one day. But it’s also unique because it felt like we will never see this happen again.
I personally enjoyed it while it lasted.