Peace and love: never before in tennis history have the world number one and the number two got along as well as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
And, happily following their lead, most other players make a contribution to a friendly atmosphere.
“The players see the gentlemen that is Roger, and they see Rafa as an incredibly nice guy,” Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic, a former chairman of the ATP Players’ Council, told DPA.
“Rafa is basically a great guy. And the fact that he plays incredibly good tennis doesn’t make him hateable,” Ljubicic noted.
It is an impossible mission these days to find one player who criticises the attitude of the game’s dominant duo. That is hardly a small matter, if one takes into account the fact that Federer and Nadal between them have won 21 of the last 23 Grand Slam titles. There are plenty of sport-related reasons for malicious envy, but the top two players neutralise them all with their personalities.
That was not always the case in tennis, and indeed it is a striking novelty.
Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe hated each other and made it very clear during the years they fought each other for the top spot. The same happened between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.
German star Boris Becker was hardly friendly in his own day and the memory of a 2010 exhibition at Indian Wells — when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi got into an argument in a show game with Federer and Nadal — make it clear that the older pair were far from being friends too.
“I remember when I started to play,” Kim Clijsters told DPA. “I never saw Agassi at the training courts, never saw Sampras. They always practiced outside of the tournament.
“Federer and Nadal are the opposite. They are always here, training with the other guys, and that’s fantastic. There is more respect for them than in the past for Sampras and Agassi. And this mood is spreading also in the women’s tour,” Clijsters said.
Nadal’s and Federer’s “zen” style strikes Connors himself, although the U.S. legend says he prefers his time — those mythical 1970s with their shouts, their insults and their excesses.
“There were no friendly rivalries in those times, everything was very real. I’m not saying that this is not, but back then it was more than tennis. It was Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Celtics and Lakers, Ali and Frazier. Those were rivalries that today you can’t find,” he told DPA in September in New York.
It is difficult to establish what player bears the larger share of the responsibility for today’s good vibes.
Is it Federer, for having been able to digest in recent seasons that a rival who is five years younger prevented him from dominating the sport? Or Nadal, for having been willing to fight and to win without resorting to arrogance or provocation? Once again, the title seems best shared. And Federer himself stresses that creating a good atmosphere did not happen by chance.
“I always thought it was actually quite nice to be nice to younger generations coming in instead of making them feel like this is going to be hell for you,” he said.
“I’m sure it rubbed off on Rafa. I think when they see the two of us being the biggest rivals in the sport actually to speak to each other and be somewhat friendly, I think that rubs off to other players as well, actually thinking, you know, tennis is a fierce sport, a tough sport, but at the end of the day it’s only a sport.
There’s so much more to life.” Indeed, it is not unusual to see Federer in the players’ lounge, pushing the pram that carries his twin daughters. A couple of metres away, Nadal floods a carbohydrate-rich dish with olive oil and he jumps like a kid as he comments on a match that is being shown on television. He does not care whether he is sitting next to the world number five or the number 250 — he treats everyone the same.
Federer always phones Nadal the day after the Spaniard wins a Grand Slam title, and vice versa. Nadal will never forget how Federer knocked on his door in October 2005 in Basel. The world number one of the time wanted to know how his young challenger was doing, since an injury was keeping him off the courts for the tournament.
Five years later, on the night of September 13, 2010, Nadal was giving the last interview of a historic day in which he won the US Open. Visibly full of admiration for Federer, he was adamant when faced with a suggestion that the rivalry between the two might seem watered down.
“Rivalries are not supposed to be watered down or not watered down. They are defined by whether or not one takes them to an unnecessary extreme,” he told DPA.
“I think at other times rivalries have been taken out of what is purely the game. I think now Federer and I clearly understand that this is a game. And it’s normal to be fond of the rival. I am especially fond of Federer because I have lived through many very important moments in my career playing him. I think he feels the same for me,” Nadal explained.
Playing tennis, week in and week out, is Nadal’s life, and he wants to make sure that he enjoys it to the full.
“In the end you are particularly fond of rivals. I think Federer, Djokovic, Murray or I understand that this is a game. We give everything on the court. But when it’s over, it ends there,” he said.
Keywords: Australian Open