The two men, perhaps the biggest stars in the tennis firmament—allowing for the revered Rod Laver in the front row of the 17,000 fans—had been joined at the hip since Nadal arrived in Federer’s home city at the start of the week. For despite having one of the most intense rivalries of their era, they have become firm friends.
So what had gripped admirers in Geneva and around the world was their camaraderie, their animated laughter on the team bench, and combined forays into coaching. And they both shared their wisdom with their young Europe colleagues, and willingly absorbed the advice of each other during their own matches.
Their mutual respect had been writ large by Federer in that first Laver Cup in Prague:
“We only ever practised once together, back at the World Tour Finals. 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…
“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… I will take these memories for a lifetime.”
The two have, many times, played for each other’s charitable foundations—Nadal will travel all the way to Cape Town after the Australian Open for Match for Africa 6—and the Spaniard committed early to this year’s Laver Cup, even if there were subsequently doubts about whether he would make it after a superb US Open series that culminated in an epic title match in New York.
He was sore, and sported a wrist support, but he remained the most intense, most involved member of the team, and played back-to-back singles and doubles to a packed arena on Saturday night. He and Stefanos Tsitsipas were edged in the latter, but Europe still maintained their two-point lead going into Sunday.
And Federer again praised his associate:
“What I really enjoy with Rafa is just that we very often align, our ideas align. He knows how much is enough and how much is too much. He’s a great problem/solution-finder…he’s constantly looking for a new way to win or stay on a certain track. I think that is the true reason why he is the champion he is today, because he’s not scared of changing a winning tactic, and he’s also a big believer in investing. And I do similar things, so it’s very enjoyable to hear him speak.”
But then came the blow: Nadal was advised on Sunday morning not to play. The first match on the schedule, the Fedal blockbuster, would be replaced by Federer/Tsitsipas.
Make no mistake: a dejected Nadal was as emotionally invested in the schedule’s remaining five matches as if he had been playing, always there for encouragement, for tactical input, and Europe was still in a strong position.
But the opening doubles was against the power-packed Jack Sock with John Isner, so the odds were even. Sure enough, the American duo edged a close match during which McEnroe reminded his men: “And don’t be afraid to go after Roger.”
On the next serve, Sock did just that, a painful shot to the Swiss groin that drew grimace and then grin: So this is how it was going to be? And Europe promptly broke back.
Sock continued to target the body, on serve and during rallies, but Nadal brought lengthy advice at the change of ends, and Europe held its ground, targeting Isner with slice and low balls where possible. In the event, they broke Sock’s serve, 7-5.
In the second set, though, World got a break early, 2-1, and despite facing a break-back point, Sock consolidated the lead. It took a marathon effort to serve it out, as World saved two break points and countless deuces in a blistering passage of play, and perhaps appropriately, it was an Isner ace that sealed the set, 6-4.
This pot-boiler would go to the nerve-jangling match tie-break—first to 10 points—and while Europe edged a point lead at the start, they were soon swamped by superb serving, and Isner capped it with a winning serve, 10-8.
Even so, it was Sock, perhaps a surprise Captain’s pick at the start of the event due to an injury-blighted year and a ranking of 210, who was proving to be MVP for the team, winning six of the World’s eight points, and in the three years of Laver Cup, 16 of 25 points. And his contribution took World in front of Europe for the first time in Geneva.
Isner and Federer would meet again in the second singles match, by which time, most anticipated that Europe would be back in the lead courtesy of world No5 Dominic Thiem, especially when John McEnroe made a late swap of player from Nick Kyrgios to Taylor Fritz.
A sluggish, pale Thiem, perhaps still not back to scratch after picking up a debilitating virus last month, made a sterling fight back to take things to a match tie-break, but Fritz was too sharp and powerful. The World took an 11-7 lead with the American’s win, 7-5, 6-7(3), 10-5.
So now, Federer had to beat Isner to keep the competition alive, and his game-face spoke volumes. He needed no coaching help, broke in the fifth game, and served out the first set, 6-4. He could not convert a break chance in the seventh game of the second set, with Isner playing bold tennis, serving big, taking chances at the net, and taking it to a tie-break, though he would rue a missed chance at 6-5, on break and set point.
Federer, though, was serving clutch, defending with energy, and at last opened clear water in the tie-break at 3-5 with a return-of-serve winner to thrill the Geneva crowd. He took the win, 7-6(3), and with his best stats of the tournament: 12 aces, 15 more winners, just eight errors.
And that brought it down to the final match, all or nothing between Milos Raonic and Sascha Zverev. Federer, unsurprisingly, called on the fans to cheer Sascha to victory, and for all his wayward results so far this year, the young German showed no sign of nerves in the first set. He broke for 4-3, and served out the first set, 6-4.
But Raonic plays big, and got a timely break in the second set, holding for 5-2. Zverev had lost his first singles match from a set up to Isner: Was he now going to suffer the same fate? Raonic had to save break points, countless deuces, and survive more than 10 minutes, but he aced his way to a deciding tie-break.
Now Federer and Nadal got on board, chasing Zverev to the locker room, demanding that he pump for every point, show no negativity: It was a heavy and hard message.
But Zverev came back and did just as demanded, seeking the crowd’s support on every point. And he stole an early lead, slotting winners on both wings, and opened an ever-bigger gap, and sealing victory with a forehand winner.
In an exact replay of Chicago, he collapsed onto his back and was immediately swamped by the entire Team Europe in celebration. But back on his feet, he explained how he had pulled it out:
“My team was screaming at me in the locker room before the match tie-break, saying this is how I could turn my season around. Without all of these guys on the bench, I couldn’t have done it. This is very special, especially playing in front of those guys and having them trust me to play the last match.”
The teams gathered, with the V of players completed by the trophy and Rod Laver himself. For the third year in a row, he stood with Europe, but it was Federer, whose brainchild this event has been, who had the last word:
“Congratulations Team World on an unbelievable fight, I can’t wait for the next one in Boston. For us, so many emotions. It’s been an unbelievable rollercoaster.
“It’s been a dream weekend for me to be playing in Switzerland. Thank you for all the noise you’ve made, I’ve loved every moment.”
Will Boston reunite Fedal for another go at sharing the court? Federer will be 39, Nadal 34. And in a packed summer, there is the small matter of the 2020 Olympics—and originally the Laver Cup was scheduled to bypass Olympic year. Not so now.
It is a long way off, with many unknowns along the way. Boston will have the answers in a year’s time.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge