Roger’s Rafa, Rafa’s Roger

How often do you see the greatest rival weep when a sporting colossus retires? Would that be the moment tattooed on the brain from Roger Federer’s last competitive game? Or the image of both Federer and Rafael Nadal, sitting side by side after the game, cheeks damp, eyes like a cloudburst. Or perhaps, the laughter mid-match, when they held hands after wasting a breakpoint.

In an Instagram live ahead of the match, Nadal had contradicted Federer by saying he was ‘relaxed’ as compared to ‘nervous’ to which the Swiss responded with a rhetorical, ‘You are now?’.

It was all part of the laughs from tennis’s greatest bromance, the many in the buildup to and during their match. The moment when the pair, sitting in the waiting room, went all comic to Andy Murray missing out on a break point against de Minaur. But as soon as Tiafoe and Sock secured the winner, the mood at the O2 had changed. The laughs had slowly started to wither, as Fedal came to grips with reality.

Seldom have sporting swan songs been perfect. Especially for the perfectionists. For Federer, the result of his last competitive appearance on a Tennis court was no different. A 6-4, 6-7 and 9-11 defeat in a doubles match at the 2022 Laver Cup. Not that anyone would care about the result.

Federer teaming up with Rafael Nadal for his farewell match was more than what the watchers of the game could’ve asked for. Perhaps, more than even they had bargained for all those years ago.

“Playing doubles with Rafa would be the most beautiful thing,” Federer had said in the press conference on Wednesday, September 21.

With the dream scenario of two maestros with a total of 42 grand slams between them sharing the court together at an ATP tour event for one last time confirmed as reality on Thursday, Nadal shared a similar sentiment.

“One of the most important, if not the most important players in my tennis career is leaving. At the end, this moment will be difficult. I’m super-excited and grateful to play with him.”

It had all started back in Miami 2004. Nadal, who was yet to win his first grand slam back then, one upped the defending Wimbledon and Australian Open champion with a comfortable 6-3, 6-3 win. A meeting that would snowball into nine grand slam finals deciding rivalry across two decades. The two acted as necessities for each other on the road to 20 grand slams. Pushing one another the extra mile to become better versions of themselves, as the best rivals have. All so simply put by Nadal recently, “For me [Roger] was always the guy to beat.”

Their styles could not have been more different than left and right, literally and metaphorically. But as the years would pass, the similarities were more noticeable for the duo than the differences.

“On court we have completely opposite styles…but in family, personal life, probably we approach life not in a very different way, no?”, the Spaniard said sitting next to his Swiss partner on court in the presser after Friday’s match.

“So that’s why we can trust each other, we can speak very often and we are able to speak very freely, feeling confident.”

“I don’t know how we got to this place over all these years. We have been very connected, especially the last 10 years, I’d say,” Federer would say.

And the indications became only more heart hitting as time passed by at the O2 Arena in London on Friday.

Alex de Minaur had opened the doors of a comeback for Team World with his win over Andy Murray. Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe had the opportunity to make it 2-2. The night however, was to be less about Tennis and more about one of its own.

Federer was no longer an active player at the tour. After 15 months, the sport had one last chance to take in a bit more of Roger Federer and celebrate what they had for more than two decades.

For all his immortal wizardry, throughout his career, Federer had presented himself as the most human of sports personalities with every ounce of human emotion. In winning, in losing. As a kid, he would cry when he lost. As a grown-up, he would cry when he won.

And so when it came to his last final minutes on the court, he wasn’t going to do anything different. Sobbing and smiling, smiling and sobbing again as he tried to extend his gratitude to the many who did theirs to him. And accompanying him, alongside his family, friends and fans, was Nadal. One second separating himself from Federer’s close proximity, to avoid a complete breakdown perhaps? Another second conceding to his emotions and just holding his hands and crying inconsolably with him for one last time. A rival, a colleague, a friend, who knew better than most to what lengths the man sitting besides him and those close to him had gone in order to get to this worldly drainage of love. For him, it was as personal a loss as any.

“When Roger leaves the tour, yeah, an important part of my life is leaving too,” Nadal said on Friday, sitting next to the person he was talking about. The person everyone was talking about.

“All the moments he has been next or in front me in important moments of my life. So has been emotional (to) see the family, see all the people. Yeah, difficult to describe.”

“For me it’s a huge honour to be part of this moment…and to be part of his career. I always considered Roger like my greatest rival. When I arrived on tour, he was the guy that I had to follow. I think he helped me a lot to grow. I think we push each other a lot during a lot of years and that makes our career.” Federer nodded in agreement.

After all of it has unfolded, one has to ask, what were the odds? To coexist on this 4.5 billion year old planet at the same time as Federer and Nadal. For them to coexist at the same time and spend a good part of two decades on the tour. For them to have played 40 ATP tour matches against each other, and a few more together. For them to have coalesced into each other’s story this way in an individual sport. We were indeed the few fortunate ones.

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