Laver Cup 2017: Golden Federer and Nadal duo thrill Prague in debut doubles but ‘will always and forever be rivals’

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal joined forces for the first time as doubles players at the Laver Cup in Prague

Yes, the Laver Cup, with its line-up of some of the best talent—young and old—that tennis has to offer, has packed the O2 in Prague from the very first match.

The home European team of Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev pounded through the first day with one-point wins before the dynamic duo of Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios got a point on the board for the World team—and they entertained with vim, even though it was at the expense of Czech poster-boy Tomas Berdych.

But in truth, there was almost as much fun to be had watching the interactions on the benches between super-stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, newer friendly rivals Thiem and Alexander Zverev, and fresh faced teenagers Denis Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe.

And all that without the contrasting styles of old rivals and old friends, captains Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Dubbed ‘fire and ice’ in the days of their memorable battles, the description holds still. Borg, the most laid back man in Prague, lounged on his bench, applauded politely, spoke briefly and to the point—and listened to his player and to the occasional advice in his ear from Federer and Nadal.

Nadal, asked about the calm Borg compared with the demonstrative, vocal McEnroe, said simply:

“With Björn, we have a lot of peace on the bench, no? That’s great, no? He’s a great man. Very easy. We feel lucky to have him on the bench.”

It became clear, in one of the many behind-the-scenes snippets offered by the Laver Cup social media crew, that Borg did not have the toughest job in the world, though.

It offered a delightful prelude to the most eagerly anticipated match of the three-day tournament, a first-ever doubles pairing between the most famed rivalry of the modern tennis era. Federer and Nadal would join forces against Sam Querrey and Jack Sock—but not before beating the same World players in singles during the afternoon.

Perhaps the Americans had hopes of picking some holes in the men who have won more Majors in singles than any other men but never in doubles. Nos 1 and 2 they may be—once again—after dominating the singles scene this year, but Federer was keen to point out that he had not played doubles in a long time. Maybe he forgot that he had played mixed doubles with Belinda Bencic at the start of the year.

But it was also worth remembering that these two were no strangers to doubles success. Each had won Olympic gold, Federer with Stan Wawrinka in 2008, and Nadal with Marc Lopez in 2016. Federer had also played Davis Cup for years—with 22 doubles matches under his belt, including part of a Cup-winning combo with Wawrinka in 2014.

Federer and Nadal also benefited from that happy combination of rightie and leftie, both had fine net skills, and boy, did they communicate with each other. It had become one of the highlights of the weekend, just how much they chatted 19 to the dozen.

And so to that behind-the-scenes video of the two men in conversation with Borg and vice-captain Tomas Enqvist. It began with Federer asking, “Who will play left court and who right?” He did not wait for an answer.

The Swiss and Spaniard shared preferences, tactics, experience, covering the middle, and ‘not hitting each other’, before concluding:

“We need to be a little bit unpredictable… and we show them we want to win! Sounds good—now let’s do it!”

And with that the stage was set. It so happened that they did almost hit each other, as both hurtled to the centre of the court to take a smash, both focused on the overhead ball. Federer spotted the danger at the last moment to duck and dance round his team-mate.

They needed one break in the first set to take the lead, 6-4, but then lost their way in the second as the serving of Querrey and the well-honed doubles skills of Sock pierced the Europe defences to race through a 29-minute set, 6-1.

All the while, the Europe duo kept up the dialogue, switching positions, trotting up and down for one last word, sometimes checking and double-checking how to play the next point. Perhaps, in the end, they over-analysed. In the deciding tie-break, they allowed instinct to play a bigger part, and the script turned back to the straight and narrow.

They upped the pace and intensity, dominated the net, and dominated proceedings—champions to the core—to steal the win, 10-5.

Federer had opened the day’s action, and he would be the last player out—Nadal ultimately leaving him to his final media commitment at around midnight. But not before the two had shared a love-in through the English questioning.

Nadal: “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… [to] have the possibility to have Roger next to me is a huge privilege. Is something that for sure I wanted to make happen at some point, and today was the ideal day to make that happen, no?

Federer: “And I agree [laughing]. He said it all!”

Then the Swiss added an interesting aside, bearing in mind how much they had nattered throughout the last four or five days.

“We only ever practised once together, back at the World Tour Finals, I think. So we don’t practise 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. 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.”

However, Federer went on:

“I do like to remind people that we are not here just only to play doubles and to be on the same team. It’s really the celebration of tennis and the legacy of Rod Laver and having Björn and John there. To me, that still overrides the whole event over us playing doubles.”

And there were as many as four matches—and a minimum of two matches—left before the competition would reach its conclusion. Europe led the World 9-3, but each match became worth three points on the final day, with 13 points the target.

Nadal was scheduled for the third match Sunday—and he would need to step up after the World beat Europe in the opening doubles.

Federer, should the tournament come down to the final match, would try to seal the deal in an event that is, after all, his brainchild. His time in Prague for almost a week has been wall-to-wall media demands, team-time, and being the central pillar in team-building for his squad. By the end of it, he will have earned a short rest before playing the next Masters of the year in Shanghai.

But the conclusion of that memorable ‘golden doubles’ saw Fedal, as the duo has become known across Twitter, still in banter mode. Asked if they might now consider pairing up in a Major, they responded:

Federer: “No, that won’t happen. Not from my side.”

Nadal: “Well, if don’t happen from your side, it not gonna work for us.”

Federer: “I don’t think so. I don’t want to kill your expectations!”

Nadal: “Well [smiling] I don’t think gonna be a good idea. I think we are singles players at the end of the day.”

Federer: “Not a good idea… Maybe in five years only—for you [the media].”

We can only hope. For, truly, they have not only provided fine entertainment this week but also a shining light on the sport of tennis.

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