Absorbing a Friday night special, like no other
Roger Federer’s partner in the last match of his professional career comes as little surprise: Rafael Nadal.
Joining Team Europe at Laver Cup London, the Spaniard said in an emotional media briefing it was an apt way for one of the game’s most influential players ever to bid adieu.
Federer announced his retirement last week, hindered by knee issues, then confirmed Wednesday in his solo press conference that his lone encounter this weekend at The O2 would be Friday night’s doubles.
Nadal was a popular choice to line up alongside his career rival Federer. Their battles and friendship have captivated the world; together they have registered 42 of Team Europe’s staggering 66 majors.
On Friday night, they will face Team World doubles pair Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe in a match that will be viewed by millions across the globe, including one special spectator, Rod Laver, who takes a front row seat at The O2.
The Laver Cup was created in honor of Laver, who memorably achieved the calendar-year Grand Slam twice, and like Borg, was idolized by a younger Federer.
“Maybe it doesn’t feel the same way for Roger, but I think it feels right, seeing him and Rafa on the same side of the net together and finishing their careers as a team in this event with Bjorn on the side of the court, John McEnroe there, Rod Laver in the stands,” teammate Andy Murray pointed out.
“It’s going to be a really cool way to end an incredible career. I don’t think there’s many better ways to go out than like this.
At which point Federer — the elder statesman of the elite quartet — interjected: “I always felt, or sitting here, it feels good that I go first from the guys. It just feels right.”
Another moment when Kleenex might have been handy. Perhaps, too, for his parents Robert and Lynette, both in attendance at the packed media session.
Familiar with virtually every nerve-wracking on-court scenario one could imagine in the past 20 years, Federer didn’t quite know how he would process Friday’s proceedings.
“I’m not sure if I can handle it all,” said the 41-year-old. “I’ll try. I have had some tougher moments as well in the past, being horribly nervous, all these years sometimes before matches. This one definitely feels a whole lot different.
“Of course, it’s super special playing with Rafa.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Tomorrow gonna be a special thing,” Nadal, sat beside Federer, said. “I think very difficult, difficult one. Gonna be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. For me, too.
“At the end, one of the most important players, if not the most important player in my tennis career, is leaving, no? At the end, live this moment will be difficult. Of course I am super excited and grateful to play with him.”
Novak Djokovic echoed the Spaniard’s excitement, relishing the Big Four reunion that escalated in stature when Federer decided to call time on his playing days.
“When we found out we were going to be on the team, Roger said at that point he still didn’t know if this was going to be his last match and last time playing on the tour,” said the 21-time Grand Slam champion, who combined with Federer in doubles at Laver Cup Chicago 2018.
“Of course it was huge excitement for me personally to be on the team, knowing that this will probably be the first and the last time that we will be all together, not knowing that he’s going to retire.
“But him announcing that made it even more special. So of course it’s a huge privilege and honor to be on this team.”
Nadal and Federer won’t be competing together in Laver Cup for the first time. ‘Fedal’ — Olympic gold medalists in doubles for their nations — defeated Sock and Sam Querrey in a 10-point Laver Breaker at the inaugural Laver Cup Prague 2017.
The biggest laugh in Team World’s ensuing media conference came when the ever smiling Tiafoe — fresh off a semifinal showing at the US Open where he upended Nadal — said he looked forward to facing a pair of “up and comers.”
A Grand Slam winner with multiple partners, Sock always seemed a guarantee to play in Friday’s doubles. But McEnroe confirmed there were no shortage of takers to partner him.
“No one was running away from that one, believe me,” said McEnroe, who bids to end Team Europe’s unblemished Laver Cup win streak.
“I don’t think it gets a whole lot more exciting than that, to be part of sort of history.
“We had to flip some coins there.”
Matteo Berrettini occupies Federer’s singles spot and provided another memorable line Thursday, one that goes beyond this weekend.
Moderator Todd Woodbridge — part of one of the most successful doubles sides ever with Mark Woodforde — asked the Italian, “You potentially have some big shoes to fill. Are you ready to step into those?”
To which last year’s Wimbledon finalist responded, “Well, biggest shoes I ever saw in my life.”