Now it can be told.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal weren’t really looking forward to playing doubles together.
That much was obvious after they pulled out a narrow victory over Sam Querrey and Jack Sock Saturday.
They looked as relieved as they were happy. From their lofty perch in tennis history, they had more to lose than to gain.
And after Roger Federer pulled off the comeback win over Nick Kyrgios Sunday that decided the Laver Cup in Team Europe’s favor, they both alluded to it.
“I was ready to go. I had to be. That’s what a team member does. We knew it could change very quickly on Sunday. I was looking at getting ready for maybe a doubles at the very end here. So I’m very pleased and relieved that we got it done,” Federer said.
Nadal’s sentiments were similar.
“Of course if the captain want me there, I was ready – I didn’t want to play, but I was ready,” Nadal said. “But thanks to Roger, and the rest of the team, that we avoided that very tough situation.”
The idea of Federer and Nadal playing doubles together is a subject that comes up every so often in the media. But it had not come up between them for many years.
The idea was better than the actual reality. Although for nearly everyone who saw it, the idea was more than enough.
Seeing two of the greatest players of all time interacting for an extended period as the fans of both rarely see them do superseded any of the tennis actually played.
“It kind of felt like going into the Laver Cup, that’s what everyone wanted to see, and talked about as well. Now that it happened I think we’ll have some great footage, some great photos,” Federer said. “The two of us getting together. Our both fan groups having to get together. I think that’s slightly interesting as well.”
In reality, they don’t mesh that well. Their styles are so different. And it’s tough to play with someone you haven’t played with before – just look at the lack of chemistry between Nadal and Berdych.
There was no great debate on who would play which side, even though the tactical discussion made for a unique, if slightly stilted video. Federer said he plays the deuce side more often, Nadal said he plays both. Federer loved the idea of Nadal’s forehand on the ad side (even if their relatively weaker backhands are down the middle, which is the most crucial part of the doubles court.
But you could see that Federer made a lot of adjustments to acquiesce to what Nadal prefers on a doubles court. For example, he stayed back on both the first and second serves when Nadal was returning.
They knew it would please the fans, of course. Which is probably a big reason why they did it. But these are two of the best players in history. They have egos. They don’t want to combine forces on the court and … lose.
“We only ever practiced once together, back at the World Tour Finals. We don’t practice a lot. We don’t show stuff to each other a lot. We’ll always forever be rivals as long as we’re active. And after this we’ll be rivals again. But this was something really special,” Federer said. “It’s been an absolutely 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.
“I knew the people, maybe the ones who don’t follow tennis all the time, they would not understand if we lost. I understand that people only expect a win from us. But it’s so complicated. We’re playing indoors against great doubles players, against big servers,” Federer added.
That a pairing like Querrey and Sock – who have played together exactly once, back in 2012 in San Jose – would worry them to that extent is meaningful.
Different worlds, different people
The two are not besties. They come from different countries, different cultures. They hang out with their own people. And for much of their careers they have been fierce rivals.
They’ve known each other forever. They’re friendly, of course. Probably as friendly as anyone could be considering their professional circumstances. They have great respect for one another.
— Abhi.sh (@_abhi_sh) September 23, 2017
But there’s a reason they have not ever teamed up on Tour, despite plenty of opportunities.
Federer hasn’t played much doubles in recent years. But before that, the two tended to play for the very same reason, at the same tournaments. Most often it was when the ATP Tour changed surfaces – from indoors to Indian Wells, from the Wimbledon grass to the summer hard-court season in Canada. They had plenty of chances, but the never took advantage in all the years they’ve been out there.
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 24, 2017
Nadal sort of seems keener than Federer on the whole concept, doesn’t he?
If they save their cooperative efforts for a once-a-year reunion at the Laver Cup, that’s just fine. The scarcity of it makes it all the more anticipated.
And it’s good for business, too.