The Tennis Space assesses the state of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s relationship, after the Spaniard’s comment that the Swiss is letting “others burn” in the locker room.
This has long been Tennis’s Great Bromance. “A blessed force of nature,” is how Rafael Nadal describes Roger Federer in ‘Rafa – My Story’, and in the opening chapter he wrote this of their relationship: “We’re friends as well as rivals. Other rivals in sports might hate each other’s guts even when they’re not playing against each other. We don’t. We like each other.”
Though it would be going too far to start imagining that Nadal would want to pulp his own book, events at Melbourne Park – Nadal remarked that Federer is letting “other burn” while the Swiss maintains his image as the gentleman of the locker-room – there is no doubt that politics have got between Roger and Rafa. Playing against each other in grand slam finals, that has not created any enmity between the two. But discussions about shortening the tennis season, and increasing the pot of prize-money at the slams, that has changed things (in the short term, at least). Of course, there will be a good few who will welcome any tension, whether real or perceived, between Federer and Nadal. There has long been a school of thought that a collegiate locker room – a culture that was largely created by Nadal and Federer’s bromance – has not necessarily been in the sport’s interests, and what was needed, to draw in the casual armchair viewer, was less back-slapping and high-fiving and more aggro.
At the start of the grand slam year, Nadal was as critical of Federer as he has ever been: “It is very easy to say, ‘I’m not going to say anything, everything is positive’, and come off as a gentleman and burn the rest. But it is not like that,” Nadal said in Spanish. “If he finishes his career as a rose it is because he has an extraordinary body but neither Djokovic nor Murray nor I will end up as roses.”
Still, you will be waiting a long time for Nadal and Federer, who could meet in the semi-finals at the Australian Open, to start trash-talking each other before matches. Anyhow, from now on, this is not a disagreement which is going to be played out in public, with Nadal already regretting that he spoke about Federer in such a way to the media. And while Nadal may feel as though Federer could be doing more for his colleagues in the locker-room, it would be premature to think that the pair have suddenly lost all respect and admiration for each other.
In Jon Wertheim’s ‘Strokes of Genius’, there is an instructive passage about the bond between the two: “For all their surface differences and the language barrier, they discovered plenty of common ground as well; a sister who shuns the limelight, a comfortable but conventional family upbringing, fond feelings for his understated hometown, a love of soccer, a similar sports code, a shared sense of how a top athlete ought to comport himself.”
There are numerous examples that show that the Roger and Rafa Bromance is not a corporate, Nike-led confection. There was the time when Nadal was playing at a tournament in Basle, Federer’s town, and answered the door to see the Swiss had just popped by to say hello. The occasion when Federer gave Nadal a ride on his private jet. There are differences in approach between the pair, with GQ magazine once saying of Federer that he was “the sport’s king and queen, thoughtful and fluent”. Despite his success, Federer has always been popular in the locker-room (Andy Roddick, for one, once joked that he had tried to dislike Federer, but just couldn’t manage it).
From Nadal’s comments in Australia, you would be on safe ground to suggest that the Spaniard feels as though, on this issue of tennis politics, Federer does not speak for the locker-room, that he cannot be regarded as the sport’s king and queen. They have had their little tiffs in the past, such as the time at Rome’s Foro Italico when Federer called out to Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni, to accuse him of illegal mid-match coaching. They recovered from that. They will recover from this. “Things are fine between us,” Federer said after his first-round match. “I have no hard feelings. I’m completely cool and relaxed about it.”
Federer and Nadal’s relationship is now a little more nuanced and complicated than it was before. But that’s okay. It’s not as if there’s only a binary choice: the best of friends or the closest of enemies.
The next time that those sitting around Melbourne Park’s Garden Square hear that Caroline Wozniacki is injured, there will be scepticism. Last season, she convinced a few people with her story about being scratched by a baby kangaroo, and there had been rumours before today’s opening-round match against Australia’s Anastasia Rodionova that she had been contemplating withdrawing from the tournament. Under the lights of the Rod Laver Arena, Wozniacki had Rodionova tapping her racket on the ground in frustration.