Novak Djokovic completes the so-called “Big 3” and is part of the debate over who is the best tennis player in history. But it was with Rafael Nadal that Roger Federer built the greatest – and friendliest – rivalry of his career.
This exceptional career came to an end this Friday (23), in London, in a fitting way. At the age of 41, the Swiss played his last game as a professional alongside his friend in the Rod Laver Cup.
The result of the game in the friendly tournament – a 2-set victory over North Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe, partials of 6/4 and 6/7 (2) and 11/9 – was a detail in a night of celebration of the Basel star at The O2 Arena. Who applauded even the mistakes of the one who topped the world rankings for 310 weeks.
The duel took place in an environment that mixed relaxation and commotion, although it was taken seriously and presented a good level. There was balance in the first set until the tenth game, in which Tiafoe’s serve was broken. In the second round, the Europeans came out behind, sought equality and lost the tiebreak.
The game was then decided in the “match tie-break”, a game of at least ten points. The contest was balanced again, with a brief moment of booing, when the man of the night took a hefty sum from Tiafoe. There was a “match point” in Roger’s serve, but the Americans looked for a comeback. Quiet until then, the former number one of finally cried. Nadal, too.
At the end of the match, Federer was embracing what he calls his “true friend”. A friend who hit the circuit like a hurricane, with his devastating forehand, and took the Swiss from his comfortable throne. They battled for years for the title of biggest male name in the sport, until Djokovic came along and joined the fray.
The rivalry had its first chapter in 2004, when then-teenager Nadal, aged 17, overthrew Federer, 23, in Miami. The battles were repeated for almost two decades, during which the Spaniard achieved a remarkable feat: he took advantage of the Swiss in direct confrontation.
Rafael had 24 victories and 16 defeats. In tournaments of the Grand Slam series, the Mallorcan tennis player also has an advantage, 10-4. In the last meeting, however, Roger triumphed, in 2019, in the semifinals of the Wimbledon Tournament.
Since then, Federer has suffered from repeated physical problems, precisely the reason why he decided to stop. “I know the capabilities and limits of my body, and its message to me lately has been clear. I am 41 years old. I have played more than 1,500 games in 24 years”, he justified, in the letter in which he announced his retirement.
He still gathered strength for one last on-court encounter with Nadal. According to Roger repeated countless times, the challenge presented by the opponent who became a friend considerably raised the level of his tennis.
“I’ve been in the game for years. I’ve seen a lot of players who work hard and are inspiring, but you, in my opinion, have been the most inspiring and made the player I’ve become. Because you’re left-handed, because of the effect, because of the intensity that you bring to the court. I team to reinvent and rework my game entirely. And that’s for the person you are and for your hard work”, said the Swiss to the Spaniard, in 2016, at the inauguration of his academy.
Praise has always been returned, in a rivalry quite different from those produced by the sport in previous decades, such as the one between the American John McEnroe and the Czech Ivan Lendl or the one between the Americans Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. “If someone says I’m better than Roger, that person doesn’t know anything about tennis,” Rafael said in 2010.
The kindness extended to the last moment of Federer’s career. At 36, although he also has physical problems, Nadal can still extend his lead in number of Grand Slam titles: he has 22, against 20 for Roger -Djokovic, who is 21, is also in the Rod Laver Cup and saw the farewell from the edge from the court.
But Friday night in London wasn’t about the battle between the stars. It was a celebration of Roger Federer, appropriately revered at the end of his brilliant career.
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