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.
Great players don’t always make great coaches but in Roger Federer’s case, it looks like the Swiss is a natural at both.
Federer briefly put on his coaching hat on Friday when he approached the bench and gave Alexander “Sascha” Zverev some advice during the German’s match against Denis Shapovalov in the inaugural Laver Cup in Prague.
The video of that on-court coaching visit has gone viral of course as Federer reminded Zverev to stay closer to the baseline after the return of serve.
And while on-court coaching on the WTA tour has been criticised by many, the way Federer’s brief pep talk was received indicates perhaps how big of a hit it is with tennis fans.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) September 22, 2017
Asked how much he’s been enjoying having an advisory role during this Laver Cup, and whether the experience has piqued his interest in perhaps turning to coaching in the future, Federer quickly cut me off and said with a laugh: “Yeah, 40 weeks a year, not so much.
“No, I mean, look, I always try to be at the service of the team, and if I can give some advice, I’m happy to do so, even more so with the younger guys who are going to go through more emotions, ups and downs, and maybe a bit of advice from myself or Rafa (Nadal) or somebody else, it’s just going to settle your nerves and give you a better understanding that maybe you’re not doing so bad.
“It is a first round. Don’t expect yourself to hit every ball in the corners yet. Really trying to calm down the nerves sometimes. I only feel I should be up there if I can be of any help.
“In the Davis Cup you sit much closer to the coaching bench, so there I would always try to speak to the captain and interact with him and then also try to help the players as much as possible. It’s just something I like doing.
“In the future, a coach? I’m not sure. I’m always going to be helping juniors along the way. A touring coach, it’s going to be hard for me with four kids that need me more than the coaching needs me.”
World No. 1 Rafael Nadal has also paid a visit or two to the bench to support his Europe team-mates and Dominic Thiem admits having the Spaniard and Bjorn Borg give him advice during his match was an “unbelievable” experience.
“They were cheering me up, which was unbelievably nice,” said the 24-year-old Austrian.
“I mean, it was, I think, unbelievable great experience for me and for all the other guys to see these two legends.
“They really have great team spirit. I mean, we saw them on the bench how they were going with us and everything in the first match and also in mine.
“So this was really nice to see, and that they came down was amazing. It was already a big boost that they were cheering me up.”
Zverev, 20, explained how hanging out with his team-mates Nadal and Federer has involved the pair recalling many stories from their past battles.
“Oh, there has been a lot. Rafa and Roger have been talking about I think the Wimbledon final that they played in 2008, the Wimbledon final before that they played, as well, those kind of things,” said Zverev.
“Also, all around, other subjects, not only tennis, other subjects that they have opinions on. It was quite fun.”
Roger Federer admits stepping up for the doubles with Rafael Nadal on Saturday night at the Laver Cup in Prague will be “difficult” but he is relishing the opportunity of teaming up with his long-time rival.
Federer has not played doubles in two years — since a Davis Cup World Group play-off against the Netherlands in 2015 — and he acknowledges the adjustment it requires from him.
The prospect of Federer and Nadal playing doubles together has been heavily promoted from the second the idea of the Laver Cup was first announced during the 2016 Australian Open.
It is a sight fans have been longing to witness — in a competitive capacity — and it will finally happen in the Czech capital on Saturday night when Federer and Nadal represent Team Europe against Team World’s Jack Sock and Sam Querrey.
“Yes, it’s going to be difficult. Unfortunately, it’s the truth,” Federer told reporters of the challenge of playing doubles, after defeating Querrey 6-4, 6-2 to extend Team Europe’s lead over Team World on Saturday.
“But, you know, I think doubles is very much a return, a serve, a volley, there. We saw the doubles yesterday.
“You could argue that Sock and Kyrgios were a tiny bit better maybe, especially in the beginning, but at the end, they still had to — they were at, I don’t know, 6-All in the super-tiebreaker and anything could happen.
“I think it’s going to be very much an intensity and energy situation for us tonight. I don’t worry about Rafa, to be honest. And me being next to Rafa, I know that I’ll be moving around, as well. So I just have to, you know, kind of find my groove, I guess, to some extent.”
For a pair of fierce rivals, Federer and Nadal have maintained a friendly relationship over the years and as they inch closer towards the ends of their careers, they’ve managed to be more about their friendship and have helped each other raising funds for their respective foundations and with other ventures like the Laver Cup – in Federer’s case – and the launching the Rafa Nadal Academy.
Asked if he has discovered anything new about Nadal having spent a lot of time with him closely during the Laver Cup this week, Federer said: “I think the very, very new situation will be (being) on the same side of him in a doubles that is going to be ultra competitive. That’s going to be the real changer.
“Other than that, you know, I have played charity matches with him, so that’s when you’re very laid back and, you know, you’re happy raising funds. You know, you also want to have a good time. Loads of things to do. You know, that’s when I got to know his family, and like when I went last year to his academy, all these things are on a very relaxed level.
“So I know Rafa for so long that I have seen his relaxed mode. Now I have seen him sort of preparing, you know, within a team, and I can see he’s a wonderful team player. He always thinks of the team members first. That’s wonderful.
“Then he’s just got great energy and a good balance. I think that’s why he has longevity, to be honest, because he’s ultra intense when he gets on the court. Once the camera goes on to him, he’s in that mode. But actually, away from it, he’s very relaxed.
“I feel like I’m the same way. I think like you can only manage it this way when you want to achieve longevity.
“Yeah, he’s a joy to be around. I’m happy that he’s on our side of the team, to be honest.”
* Video footage courtesy of Laver Cup