Australian Open: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: brothers in arms
While they are as chalk and cheese in playing style and on-court demeanour, they interact like siblings, writes Marianne Bevis
It was news that made almost every tennis headline when the draw for the Australian Open’s 100th edition was made. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were in the same half for the first time since 2005.
It was news because, for years, these two have shared the kind of friendly rivalry that gives sport—and in particular tennis—a warm glow. They have engaged in the most intense of battles for the most glittering of trophies through 26 matches—all but the first of them, in 2003, a final or a semi-final.
They were the poster boys for the launch of the new season, in a lamp-lit, glittering arena in Doha. It is their faces that feature time and again on the video streams from Melbourne, each the face of one of the main sponsors: Nadal for Kia, Federer for Rolex.
And while they are as chalk and cheese in playing style, looks, personality and on-court demeanour, they interact like siblings: Federer the extrovert, confident older brother to the younger, more reluctant star, Nadal. A widely-viewed video of the two publicising each other’s foundations captured the relationship: Federer in charge, giggling like a naughty schoolboy, but nudging Nadal into a share of the blame.
Behind the scenes, too, they set the standard: role models in handling their media obligations, responding to fans and working with each other. That sense of responsibility to their sport extends into its management: Federer is president and Nadal vice-president of the Players’ Council, both for their second terms.
But for the first time, an undercurrent has wrinkled the smooth surface of this near-perfect working relationship. Following a players’ meeting on Saturday, Nadal assured reporters that he would not act as the front man for grievances over scheduling and pay—though tweets from others in the meeting revealed that these topics had sparked the most debate.
But then he did just that to the Spanish-speaking media. Even allowing for slight variations in translation, it was clear that Nadal’s frustration had triggered a surprise outburst about Federer:
“His [position] is easy: do not say anything, all positive, I am a ‘gentleman,’ others get burned. We each have our opinion and maybe he likes the circuit. Me too, I like it, and I think it’s better than most sports. That does not mean you cannot be better and change things that are bad.
“I say a lot of good things about tennis, because thanks to this sport I have had experiences in my life I could never have dreamed of, but to finish your career with pain in all areas of your body is not positive. He finishes his career as fresh as a daisy because he is physically privileged, but neither Murray nor Djokovic and I are fresh as a daisy.”
A day later, with one match down and six to go if he is to win his second Australian title, Nadal was backtracking. Perhaps it was down to naivety—though that’s hard to explain after so many years in the media spotlight—or perhaps his frustration bubbled over as a result of the latest in a catalogue of injury issues.
Nadal fell in the quarter-finals at the last two Australian Opens due to injury and had already announced that he intended to take this February off to rehabilitate a less-than-perfect shoulder. But in another bizarre incident, he required an MRI scan on his knee on the very day of his rash Spanish comments. Whatever the cause, he hastened to pour oil on the waters.
“What I said, I said, but I was probably wrong telling you because these things must stay in the locker room. I have always had a fantastic relationship with Roger and I still do. We can have different views about how the tour needs to work, that’s all. I feel sorry for saying it because I should have said it to him personally.”
He went on to promise that he would not be caught out again: “Yesterday I said I don’t want to talk anymore about this. Finally, I talked too much as usual. That’s not going to happen again.”
Afterwards, Federer seemed the least perturbed man in Melbourne: “Things are fine between us. I have no hard feelings towards him.
“It’s been a difficult last few months in terms of politics within the ATP, I guess, trying to find a new CEO and chairman. That can get frustrating sometimes.
“He’s mentioned many times how he gets a bit tired and frustrated through the whole process, and I shared that with him. It’s normal. But for me, obviously, nothing changes in terms of our relationship. I’m completely cool and relaxed about it. He seemed the same way, or at least I hope so.”
But Nadal’s words are the latest expression of a growing discontent among many players both about the unrelieved pressure of the tennis merry-go-round and the relatively low payback from Grand Slams compared with other sports.
Federer explained that his reluctance to speak shouldn’t be construed as a lack of support: “I was in the meeting. I completely understand and support the players’ opinions, I just have a different way of going at it. I’m not discussing it with you guys in the press room.”
And not for the first time, he mentioned the danger of talking about strike action.
“It’s not good for anyone really. We’ve seen it in other sports happening in the States. That’s why I’m always very careful about it. If there’s no avoiding it, I’ll support the rest of the players. But I just think we have to think it through how we do it, if we do it, can we do it, whatever it is, instead of just going out and screaming about it.”
The players are due to meet again at Indian Wells in March, but can the wish of Nadal and others to reduce the physical demands of the tour be reconciled with the needs of the tour as a whole?
There was a pivotal moment six months ago when rain seriously disrupted the US Open. As the matches backed up, the players were asked to play on damp courts, and they rose as one to complain. Nadal was the first to capture a mood shared by Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and more.
“Grand Slams are about a lot of money. We’re part of the show. They’re just working for that, not for us. I understand the fans want to see tennis but the health of the players is the most important and we do not feel protected.”
Federer also weighed in: “You never have it that we have to play back-to-back best-of-five-set matches, only here before the final at the US Open.”
He went on to expose the structural dichotomy in the tennis tour: “We have not much say in Grand Slam play…there are a whole lot of other issues we need to work through with the Grand Slams and the ITF.”
For while the Players’ Council makes representation to the ATP on the broad tennis calendar, there is no equivalent voice for the four Grand Slams and the Davis Cup, which are organised by the International Tennis Federation.
Murray then revealed that a reduced schedule and more consideration of the players’ needs were up for discussion when the tour converged at the next Masters in Shanghai. In the event, two of the top four withdrew but the debated simmered on to the World Tour Finals.
Despite the ATP introducing changes in 2012 designed to give the players a longer end-of-season break, this seemed only to concertina the existing events which, for the top 30, appeared to solve little.
This elite group are committed, by the ATP, to play all four Grand Slams, eight Masters, four 500s and, if they qualify, the WTFs. A better solution might be simply to reduce the number of these mandatory events. The top players would probably continue to contest most if not all the big tournaments for their kudos and their ranking points while the lower-ranked players would retain the maximum number of events to sustain their points and financial earnings.
Most players also take part in the Davis Cup and the Olympics. If the ATP and ITF strands were better integrated, perhaps the Davis Cup could become part of the ATP calendar, allowing players to select it as one of their mandatory events.
Another divisive option is the two-year calendar, which would allow the top men to vary events between years without losing ranking points. However, Federer, in London in November, was adamant that this was a non-starter: “I think it’s not a good thing for the lower-ranked players, to be quite honest. I think it’s going to be a struggle for them to make a big breakthrough things would be slow and nothing would really move. I can’t support it…I have to look all the players in the eye.
“I know it would be a good thing for me or for Rafa because we would stay at the top for a very long time. But for the lower-ranked players, I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
It’s an egalitarian view but, given that Nadal, with the support of Djokovic, proposed the two-year calendar as long ago as 2009, it is clearly a point of conflict. Back then, Djokovic dropped a place in the rankings despite reaching three straight Masters finals and winning the Belgrade title, and commented “That shows how cruel the ranking system is in this sport.”
But longevity and physical health can be helped in other ways, though the impact on rankings, like the one-year points calendar, may suffer.
Nadal, and Djokovic in a year or so, has more than 600 matches to his name and is therefore allowed to drop a Masters event from his annual commitment. He took advantage of that in Paris—as Federer did in Shanghai—but Nadal has failed to cut his schedule in the past, despite almost 11 years on the pro tour. Even in 2011, he played more matches than anyone else.
Federer is often described as ‘fortunate’ to have a style of play that has less impact on his body than Nadal’s bruising style. Nadal, though, is beginning to develop a more productive serve and the all-court tactics that could keep points and matches shorter. But in the end, Nadal could do worse than listen to his elder ‘brother’.
Federer consistently talks of listening to his body and resting when he has to. For, contrary to received wisdom, Federer has had to manage injury. In 2005, he missed Madrid, Paris and Basel with an ankle injury. In 2008, he pulled out of Paris with back problems and struggled to complete his round robins in Shanghai. In spring 2009, he missed another six weeks due to his back: It also pulled him from Doha earlier this month. And that’s aside from glandular fever and a lung infection along the way.
So, feeling less than 100 per cent after the Davis Cup playoffs in September, he forfeited the No3 ranking by missing the Asian swing—but it paid off in spades at the end of the year.
The ripples on the Roger-and-Rafa pond have, for the time being, been calmed: A diplomatic Federer put it simply: “We can’t always agree on everything.” But it was ever thus on the pro circuit, as the seasoned campaigner Roddick explained in Australia.
“There was the exact same conversation in 2002. Then there was a divide. Unity is a hard thing to attain…Like I said, same fundamental problems, same end goal, difference of opinions on how to get there, which is fine.
“We’re going to have to kind of negotiate through that. So I don’t think this is going to be a quick fix. I don’t think we should force a quick fix. But I think we need to be unified and organised if we want to get something done eventually.”
Probably good news, then, that Federer and Nadal, despite their contrasting methodology, hold pole positions on the Players Council. They must continue to be brothers in arms.