The 36-year-old became the most decorated person in the awards’ history as he beat fellow nominees Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo and British trio Chris Froome, Mo Farah and Lewis Hamilton to claim the sportsman of the year prize.
The Swiss recovered from back and knee problems in 2016 to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles the following year, with Nadal, five years younger than Federer, battling back from his own injury issues to claim the other two Grand Slams.
Upon receiving his sportsman of the year award from Martina Navratilova, an emotional Federer said: “To my rival Rafa, I wanted to just give a shout-out to him.
“He had an unbelievable year himself. We had a great battle and it’s because of a guy like him, I feel like I’ve become a better player as well.
“He could very well be here as well and standing here with this award. He’s an incredible player, incredible friend, an incredible athlete.”
Federer expanded on his relationship with Nadal at a press conference after the event, adding: “All the matches that you’ve played against one another, they sort of connect you to some extent.
“When you lose against a guy 9-7 in the fifth (set) or you win 9-7 in the fifth, it leaves something special there for everyone.
“Whenever you walk past a guy, you know there was a match that really shaped your character maybe as well.”
— #Laureus18 (@LaureusSport) February 27, 2018
The Swiss, who at one point was asked to “confess a flaw” to prove he was not perfect, did concede surprise at the level he has been able to return to.
However, the 20-time grand slam champion also revealed the constant questions he has faced about possible retirement for nearly a decade have driven him on.
“It’s like a hammer banging at the door, eventually you feel like it’s going to break through,” he added.
“You have to hold back the door and just not let that come to you. I think it’s made me extremely resilient and strong, having to answer all these questions.
“I think this has been a big challenge for me, just not letting that get to my head and truly listening to myself and my team. Can I actually still win? As long as I believe truly I can still win, then I believe it was worth it to come back. That’s the feeling I had. I feel like I never really let that (negativity) come to me.
“It’s been wonderful – not to prove people wrong, but just to prove myself and my team right.”
Fellow tennis star Serena Williams won her fifth statuette by being named the sportswoman of the year, while Formula One team Mercedes, Sergio Garcia, Francesco Totti, JJ Watt and Edwin Moses also picked up prizes.
– The Laureus World Sports Awards highlight sporting excellence and recognise those who use sport to change lives for the better. For more information, head to www.laureus.com/awards
The Swiss, who earlier this week confirmed his return to the top of the ATP world rankings at the age of 36, breezed past his Bulgarian opponent 6-2 6-2 on the way to his 97th tour-level trophy.
Federer told www.atpworldtour.com: “It’s definitely one of those weeks I will never forget in my life. It’s unbelievable to get my 97th title and get back to world number one. It’s very special.
“I was expecting it to be tough today. Grigor is a great player and a great athlete and he’s been playing super well in recent months.
“I thought that this wasn’t going to be the result, but he looked to be struggling a bit and I never looked back. I was able to execute my tennis the way I wanted to. I’m very happy.”
Federer, who had previously won in the Dutch city in 2005 and 2012, assumed control after breaking in the fifth game in front of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands as Dimitrov made 13 unforced errors in the first set.
An immediate break in the second set him on the road to a comfortable victory and 401,580 Euros – around £355,385 – prize money inside an hour.
Dimitrov, who had not dropped a set on his way to the final, was far from at his best, but left with a cheque for 196,875 Euros, or £174,228.
After becoming the oldest World No1 in history, there’s plenty of people who say Roger Federer is not only the greatest tennis player of all time but the best-ever sportsman, too.
Here, our writers discuss who they think the best is in our top-three format debate.
STUART APPLEBY, SAYS:
1. ROGER FEDERER
Quite simply, the perfect sportsman. Titles, records and longevity are the main hallmarks of his staggering success at the top of the game over a 15-year period but it’s the Swiss’s professionalism, high-level of sportsmanship and will to keep going and going which sets him apart. As his climb back to the top of the rankings has proved, Federer is the man that can do no wrong and probably the most popular athlete around.
2. MUHAMMAD ALI:
Appropriately, the boxing king was nicknamed “The Greatest” and certainly lived up to that billing in a remarkable career and life. He was the only heavyweight champion in history to hold the lineal championship on three different occasions. Fought in the toughest ever era, with his eighth-round knockout of George Foreman in 1974 being one of the best-ever fights. Huge personality and presence which has never been matched.
3. LIONEL MESSI
Amazingly, he is still only 30 and going from strength to strength. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is the ultimate individual but also team player, possessing skill and talent of which the game hadn’t seen so consistently before. He was the main man behind arguably the best club side in history, leading Barcelona to a glittering array of titles particularly between 2008 and 2012. Can do anything on the pitch and just loves the game.
ALEX BROUN, SAYS:
1. MICHAEL PHELPS
There are many who have a claim on the GOAT but I’m going to start with the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. He has also won the most Olympic gold medals (23), and in Beijing in 2008 broke fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven golds at any single Olympic Games. He also did it over five Olympics, four of which he was the most successful athlete of the Games.
2. ROGER FEDERER
In terms of consistency, technique and longevity the Swiss has to be up there. Federer has won a record 20 Grand Slam singles titles including a record eight Wimbledons, a record six Australian Opens and a record five consecutive US Opens. He has held the World No1 spot in the ATP rankings for a record total of 302 weeks and has displayed a remarkable level to get back to the summit of the game.
3. CRISTIANO RONALDO
This might be controversial as I’m including one and not the other (Messi), but an equal most five Ballon d’Or awards, five league titles and four Champions Leagues puts him right up there. He also continues to produce year after year. Perhaps his most extraordinary achievement was lifting a very ordinary Portugal team to the European Championship in 2016. He’s the sort of player who makes other players around him play better.
MATT JONES, SAYS:
1. MICHAEL JORDAN
Nicknamed Air Jordan, he might as well have walked on air with how much better he was than any other athlete during his mega successful basketball career. Jordan was a six-time NBA champion and NBA finals MVP, five-time most valuable player and a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the USA. Was so good he even ventured into baseball in homage to his murdered father, although that didn’t turn out to be quite so successful.
2. JERRY RICE
Considered to not just be the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, but also a shout for being called the greatest NFL player of all time. He is the all-time leader in most major statistical categories for wide receivers, including 208 touchdowns, and remains miles ahead today even 13 years after retiring. Won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers during their heyday and was selected to the Pro Bowl 13 times in a 20-year career.
3. USAIN BOLT
Not only was Bolt untouchable on his day but he made what he did look fun too. The joyful Jamaican mixed slick showmanship with incredible speed to break a string of world records. He is the first person to hold both the 100m and 200m world records and is the only sprinter to have won Olympic 100m and 200m titles at three consecutive Olympics. Also holds the 100m world record time of 9.58 seconds, set in Berlin in 2009.