Last year, Rafael Nadal was so pumped on every point by every Europe player that he looked as though he would burst a blood vessel.
In contrast, his great rival Roger Federer chatted, laughed, lounged in the midst of the team—talking 19 to the dozen. It is the side he switches off on court, but a side that came into better focus during the birth of his ‘baby’, the tournament established to honour the man every player here idolised in their youth.
When things were going well, though, Nadal and Federer seemed usually to seek one another out on the team bench, heads together, hands doing much of the talking—epitomising the rivalry that has become friendship.
And if Nadal’s involvement in proceedings served to reinforce the image of intensity and passion he has always carried, Federer’s involvement revealed the other side of the on-court persona. Renowned for his unflustered, calm playing style, here was the extrovert, garrulous joker. Yet with one eye on the action, and ready for a quiet word in the ear of his confederate between games.
Then Federer and Nadal played doubles together, and their relationship was dubbed ‘a bromance’. Were these men really two of the greatest rivals of their age? Not judging by the non-stop chatter, giggles, pokes and prods on and off the match.
Now, 12 months on, it was time to watch another rivalry take a different turn. Novak Djokovic could only watch the Laver Cup, and that Roger-and-Rafa doubles match, on television last year. He had been side-lined since Wimbledon with an elbow injury, and would not return until the start of 2018.
“I was watching it on the TV last year and it was very exciting to see a new concept; to see many of the guys that shared rivalries throughout their careers, like Roger and Rafa playing on the same side of the courts, supporting each other. It’s a great team spirit.”
Djokovic returned with a bang, too: The Wimbledon and US Open titles, plus the Cincinnati Masters, to complete the set of crowns. He was back at No3 in the ranks, with Federer at No2 after winning his 20th Major in Australia.
So with three Majors apiece, they were a formidable-looking if unlikely pairing. But how would they gel? Djokovic was not the intense presence on the bench that Nadal had been, though he and Federer also did a lot of talking. And once they took to court, the tactics they had promised one another—Federer taking the forehand wing, Djokovic the backhand—worked a treat.
Federer, who relishes the front of the court in singles, raced to the front at every opportunity, followed by Djokovic. But in opponent Jack Sock, they faced one of the most effective doubles players in the world, also a champion at both Wimbledon and the US Open. And his team-mate made huge strides in the last 12 months. Kevin Anderson was Team World’s highest ranked player, twice a Major finalist, and owner of one of the sport’s biggest serves.
The interaction between Federer and Djokovic took a brief dip in the third game when the serving Serb thumped a ball into his partner’s back. He cringed in embarrassment, but went on to hold from deuce.
There was much to enjoy through the first set, and it headed to a thrilling tie-break. There was little between them, until Federer slotted an angled volley winner, 7-6(5).
The arena erupted, and Djokovic nudged his partner with his shoulder—an understated bonding gesture. And Federer pulled off a tricky second game in the second, saving break points with three volley winners. But in the fourth game, the power of the Sock/Anderson combo told, they hit blistering returns and this time did break, 3-1. The Red team’s serving produced two love holds, and they served out the equaliser, 6-3.
It would take a championship tie-break, a dangerous conclusion in the face of such potent serving and aggressive play from Anderson and Sock. Djokovic and Federer had their game faces on, but the lead slipped from their grasp: Europe dropped its only point of the day, 10-6.
The win for Team World showed the intense passion of its young side: Sock is only 25, Nick Kyrgios, 23 and Frances Tiafoe 20, and they jumped, danced, appealed for noise from the crowd. Because these are very contrasting teams, epitomised by the fire and ice of their captains. John McEnroe’s fire to Bjorn Borg’s ice—just it had been in their own rivalry. They split their 14 meetings, and rather like Federer and Djokovic, had only ever met in semis of finals.
But how did the biggest tennis names in Chicago feel about this first match together?
“It was a lot of fun. I want to thank Roger in this way for playing with me. It was a great experience. I loved it. I was looking forward to it.”
“Novak has such an amazing and wonderful career, so to team up with somebody of his calibre is just a treat. Talking strategy, preparing for the match and then… I don’t know, it’s just very different. It’s not something we are that used to. You learn a lot from these kind of matches, and it was a big-time match for us.
“We wanted to go down as a 1-0 team maybe if we never play again together. So this was disappointing, of course.”
Djokovic jumped in: “We have to play again.” And Federer concurred: “Yeah, absolutely.”
To see that outside the Laver Cup seems a very remote possibility, judging from Federer’s parting shot:
“I just don’t think I can. I don’t think my body would want that… Honestly, I want to give myself the best opportunity for the singles. I had my Grand Slam fun, to be honest, in doubles, and that will be it.”
But what of the rivalry, and the friendship, after almost a week up close and personal?
Djokovic referred to the mutual respect these two champions have:
“We always have plenty of respect for each other. I think that’s the most important thing. Of course, that relationship will be strengthened. I think we got to know each other. We haven’t had these kinds of opportunities over the last decade to sit down and talk. We did have, but not this consistently every single day. We spent a whole day in the locker room and chatting about different things in life and just getting to know each other.
“So that kind of quality time is something that it can only strengthen the relationship. And respect was there, is there, and will be there, forever.”
And the last word from Federer:
“If I may add, most people worry about the rivalry after this, because they think you’re going to go on vacation together. I think the rivalry will remain strong, as well. I want to beat Novak next time I play him and I think vice versa, too. You want to beat the best, and that’s why I think we are both still on tour.
“And I do believe, me helping out his Foundation, maybe down the road there is also more things to do on that front. Just spending time together like this is definitely a good thing for our relationship, no doubt.”
On to Saturday, and both were back in singles action, the other cheering from the side-lines. There were, many years ago, bumpy moments in this relationship, but it has mellowed with the years and, probably, with fatherhood. Nice to see, of course, but don’t expect any less intensity next time they face one another across a net with a title at stake.
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