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Plain Speak: Why Federer And His Greatest Rival Cried at The Swiss Ace's Farewell

By: Shivani Gupta

CNN-News18

Last Updated: September 30, 2022, 08:30 IST

New Delhi, India

Roger Federer (left) teamed up with Rafael Nadal one last time on the tennis court. (AP Photo)

Roger Federer (left) teamed up with Rafael Nadal one last time on the tennis court. (AP Photo)

From the moment a 16-year-old Rafa beat Roger in their very first meeting at the 2004 Miami Masters in straight sets, you knew you had something special on your hands

Plain Speak

Roger Federer was so head and shoulders above others, so supremely gifted and so well groomed, his biggest and only worry in life could have been not having enough competition.

There were times on the court you could swear he was bored as he finished off challenges from certain players.

But such is the divine career that the Swiss has had that along with the greatest talent he was also gifted with the toughest challengers. And two of them to boot.

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While it may be natural to wonder how many more Grand Slams Roger could have won if not for a young Rafael Nadal dethroning him at Wimbledon in 2008 or Novak Djokovic sweeping slam after slam post 2010, the reality is but for these two, Roger’s career could have been viewed much differently.

It is because he was challenged by two amazing fighters and had to dig deep to take them on, while also being the oldest, that his career achieved the halo it did.

But for this challenge, the Swiss could have continued to win and pocket many more slams and ended a long time ago starved for competition.

How would it look if Federer had no Rafa and Novak around? As a god on a pedestal no one could touch and it’s lonely up there alone. The element of grit and human emotions infused into Federer’s career was because of his rivalry with Rafa first and prominently and then to a lesser extent vs Novak.

It could have been pretty boring otherwise to just have a guy win everything without even trying much. And, therefore, it is not surprising that there were emotions on both sides at Federer’s farewell match at the Laver Cup. It wasn’t a surprise he chose to play his final match as a doubles with rival and friend Rafa. It wasn’t shocking they both shed tears and held hands.

Their rivalry is perhaps the most beautiful and poignant of all sports. Their love and appreciation were obvious from the very beginning. Contrasted by styles both personal and play-wise, they made strange competitors. Federer’s fluidity vs Rafa’s ruggedness. They pushed each other so hard, their rivalry made each other great.

From the moment a 16-year-old Rafa beat Roger in their very first meeting at the 2004 Miami Masters in straight sets, you knew you had something special on your hands.

They were ruling the roost on the calendar sweeping Grand Slams already when they met at the Wimbledon 2008 final. They had met each other in finals and shared the spoils at the French Open and Wimbledon since 2006 – Federer beating Rafa on grass twice, and the latter beating Federer on clay for three consecutive years. But this time, in their third consecutive Wimbledon final together, in what is considered the ‘finale of a lifetime’ and possibly the greatest tennis match, Rafa managed to dislodge Federer as the King of Grass.

I was lucky enough to watch that match from Henman Hill at the hallowed SW19 grounds, and while I was supporting Rafa, you could sense the emotions of Federer too. It was probably clear to him then that he would find it hard to dominate Rafa.

A few months later, they played another great final at the Australian Open 2009 which the Spaniard won again in five sets. Federer couldn’t hold back his tears this time as a young Rafa put his arms around his senior in the post-match ceremony. You could also always sense how uncomfortable Rafa felt giving so much pain to Roger.

Their rivalry status was sealed then only. Subsequent matches only added to it.

Post the 2009 Australian Open, Roger-Rafa grand slam finals meetings declined considerably with the era of Djokovic beginning in 2011. They met once at the 2011 French Open final till they played another majestic final in Melbourne in 2017, their last Grand Slam final against each other.

This one was a see-saw battle of utter attrition between two of the game’s greatest. And this time it was Federer who finally overcame Rafa in a gruelling five sets.

Federer cried again but this time it was tears of joy. There was almost a sense of disbelief in his celebration. Both were coming back after injury concerns, and it was one for the ages for their individual fans and ‘Fedal’ rivalry buffs to have them play at this level, when there were doubts abound regarding their fitness.

I remember being gutted as a Rafa fan, for some reason this loss stuck really badly. Maybe because till then, you could very easily argue Federer had not found the answer to Rafa’s game despite trying for over a decade. Rafa hadn’t lost to Federer in a slam final in 10 years. But the Swiss finally got one up against his greatest rival.

I hung onto his words at the post-match ceremony for a very long time: “Tennis doesn’t have draws but if there was one, I would have been happy to share it with Rafa tonight."

Trophies cannot be shared, but together Roger and Rafa did share a unique rivalry and relationship. One that was filled with genuine respect.

Shivani Gupta is a senior journalist and co-author of ‘Ace against Odds’, Sania Mirza’s autobiography.

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first published:September 30, 2022, 08:30 IST
last updated:September 30, 2022, 08:30 IST