Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal Model Healthy Rivalry, Friendship


Courtesy of Getty Images

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were doubles partners at the Laver Cup.

Just three weeks after Serena Williams, tennis’s greatest female athlete, retired, a fellow tennis legend followed suit. On Sept. 23, Roger Federer, the Swiss maestro who has captivated audiences for decades, played his final match at the Laver Cup in doubles alongside one of his most formidable rivals, Rafael Nadal. It seemed fitting for Federer and Nadal to share the court to close Federer’s career considering their storied rivalry. Over the course of 18 years, they played 40 matches against each other including 24 finals — nine of which took place at one of the four major Grand Slam tournaments.

Along with Novak Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have dominated tennis since the early 2000s and are seen as some of the greatest tennis players of all time. The two have always had immense respect for each other, and neither have been shy to admit it. Before the 2010 Nitto ATP Finals, Nadal provided insight into his and Federer’s friendship.

“We have a great relationship all the time,” Nadal said. “Our relationship didn’t change a lot since the beginning because it was always very respectful. The only way the relationship has improved is getting closer. We spend more time together, always being in the [ATP Player] Council, being on court, playing exhibitions together. I don’t think it’s a rivalry. All these important moments in tennis make you appreciate it more.”

Federer has been equally vocal about his respect and support of Nadal.

“I’m his number one fan, I think his game is simply tremendous,” Federer said before playing against Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final. “He’s an incredible competitor and I’m happy we’ve had some epic battles in the past.”

Both Federer and Nadal have erased each other’s name from the winning side of history on numerous occasions. However, healthy competition and respect is what stands out in their rivalry. They have always held themselves with grace and humility and are shining examples of sportsmanship at the highest level.

Images of Federer and Nadal after their match have gone viral for the amount of emotion each friend displayed. It was anticipated that everyone would be emotionally affected and for Federer to be in tears, but Nadal crying and holding hands with Federer on the bench was unexpected.

“We can coexist in a tough rivalry and come out on top and show that, hey, again it’s just tennis,” Federer said in the postgame interview. “Yes, it’s hard, and it’s brutal sometimes, but it’s always fair. And you can come out on the other side and still have this great, friendly rivalry.”

Federer’s last match was the second time he and Nadal had partnered together in the Laver Cup, a unique tournament on the professional calendar. In this team-focused event, the top European players band together as Team Europe to take on the best of the rest, Team World. Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe, two Americans competing for Team World, saved a match point and prevailed over the European pair 4–6, 7–6 (2), 11–9 in a two-hour battle. Despite his final match ending in defeat, Federer was not disappointed by the outcome.

“It does feel like a celebration to me,” he said. “I wanted to feel like this at the end, and it’s exactly what I hoped for.”

Tennis has always been an individual-focused sport with few opportunities for team involvement. The Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup competitions, in which male and female tennis players play for their individual countries, were tennis’s primary team
events for years. Although these two events are still important, the Laver Cup has become the most anticipated team event of the year. Along with being incredibly entertaining for tennis fans, the Laver Cup has reduced the perception that top players around the world are not friendly and harmonious with one another.

Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have shared nearly every accolade in this generation of tennis, and many of their matches have occured on opposite sides of the net in prestigious singles competitions. The Laver Cup united these three legends on Team Europe, where they are no longer rivals but allies. Fans have seen players on both teams cheering loudly in support of their teammates. The Laver Cup has successfully brought a team dynamic to tennis and has put healthy and competitive behavior on display for fans to witness.

Many athletes are forced to retire due to contracts or injury. Although Federer’s final comeback was stopped short due to his recurring knee injury, he was still able to retire on his own terms. Surrounded by friends and family, Federer’s last match contained everything an athlete could want in their farewell to their sport.

“The way it all happened yesterday, I think it’s the perfect way to say goodbye,” Djokovic said to reporters the day after Federer’s match.

Roger Federer is an exemplary sportsman: graceful, sensitive, strong, and compassionate. His rivalry with Rafael Nadal is one for the history books, in both records and respect. He has left an indelible mark on tennis and his legacy will last forever. Thank you for everything, Roger, and enjoy your retirement.