The world of tennis stopped for 81 minutes to watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal unite for the first time on a doubles court. This was the sport’s equivalent of a solar eclipse.
In the words of Tomas Berdych, one of the lesser lights on the European Laver Cup team: “Everyone was waiting for this moment since they announced this event is going to happen. This is the time. So I think it’s almost like a celebration of tennis.”
After such a hype-filled build-up, there was always a possibility of anti-climax. So everyone seemed relieved once these two great champions had overcome Jack Sock and Sam Querrey, a doughty pair of Americans. Should this turn out to be a one-off – always a possibility given their combined age of 67 – Roger and Rafa can at least claim to have posted an unbeaten record.
The sight of singles contenders in doubles harness is increasingly rare these days, especially on a men’s tour that involves best-of-five-set matches at slams. Federer had not played with a partner for fully two years, since pairing up with Stan Wawrinka in the Davis Cup, and that sense of unfamiliarity was not hard to spot.
Early in the match, Federer and Nadal went up to smash the same ball, though Federer fortunately pulled out in time to avoid a full-on collision. It was an error that Nadal later ascribed to “too much energy”. There were also numerous pre-point conferences that had to be repeated or clarified, just in case the players had different ideas about what was about to happen.
Still, tennis skills are tennis skills, and these two have them in spades. Everyone knows that Federer is lethal on the volley, for he remains one of the last bastions of net-play in the professional game. What is less well understood is that Nadal also feels comfortable at the front of the court, where he possesses terrific touch and variety.
Querrey and Sock made challenging opponents, particularly Sock, who won the Wimbledon doubles title in 2014 with his then partner Vasek Pospisil. He plays a ferociously spin-heavy game, making the ball constantly dip down at his opponents’ feet, and is also expert at using the doubles tramlines – a skill that Federer and Nadal, their lives dominated by singles, took longer to pick up.
The Europeans claimed the first set via a single break, only to find themselves outgunned by Sock’s heavy forehands in the second, during which they won only one game. They needed to pull themselves together at the start of the champions tie-break, and did so magnificently, pouncing on the ball in a series of first-time volley kills to take an almost unassailable 8-1 lead. The Americans showed spirit, pulling the score back slightly, but still finished second-best by a 6-4, 1-6, 10-5 margin.
As Querrey put it afterwards: “Not only Roger and Rafa, but I think a lot of the other singles player in the top ten, if they really focused on the doubles, they could be in the mix for grand slams four times a year.” In other words, the best players in the world are just the best players in the world, whatever the format.
The result meant that, at the close of day two, Europe held a powerful 9-3 lead overall. The remaining four matches, to be played on Sunday with a local start time of noon, are each worth three points. So the hosts could theoretically have sealed the match by mid-afternoon, leaving the final session as the sort of hit-and-giggle affair we more regularly associate with exhibitions.
After the match, Nadal said: “It was an unforgettable day, after the history behind us to be on the same part of the court fighting for the team is something we enjoyed a lot.”
Federer added: “For me, personally, it is a great moment too. We only ever practised once together, back at the World Tour Finals, so we don’t show each other a lot. We will always be rivals. But this was something very special, it was an absolute pleasure being on the court with Rafa and seeing his decision-making process.
“I understand that people only expect a win from us, but it’s very complicated, we’re playing indoors against the big servers, and I hadn’t played doubles for so long, I was trying to remember what to do.
“The two of us getting together, our two fan groups having to get together, that was interesting too. It was a success, but this isn’t just about us. The celebration of Rod Laver and having John and Bjorn there over-rides the doubles, but this was still an important moment for us.”