Laver Cup: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic become besties
It is no secret that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have coexisted less comfortably in this elongated era of Big Three dominance in men’s tennis than Federer and his friendly rival from Spain, Rafael Nadal.
Since Djokovic emerged as a force 11 years ago, there have been flashes of bad blood between their camps; accusations of rule flouting; hints of lucky shots.
Then came this weekend’s Laver Cup, the second edition of the Federer-created team competition that pits Europe against the rest of the world. It showed how friendly but fierce rivals, in keeping with the professional tennis era of good feelings, could become friendlier still.
Ten minutes into their first time playing doubles together, on Friday night, Djokovic, after serving in the third game, pegged Federer in the lower back with a forehand.
Was it a Freudian competitive faux pas?
Before the full psychological implications could reverberate, Djokovic was curled over in embarrassment and reassuringly patting Federer on the back. The two were still chuckling about it like old chums when they sat down at the changeover.
“To team up with somebody of his caliber is just a treat,” said Federer after he and Djokovic lost their doubles debut to Kevin Anderson and Jack Sock, 6-7(5), 6-3, 10-6.
Federer, 37, with a men’s-record 20 Grand Slam titles, copped to uncertainty about sharing the Laver Cup experience with Djokovic, whose wins at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon this summer elevated him back into the chase-for-history debate. At 31, he owns 14 majors.
“It’s definitely not as straightforward as with Rafa, where I knew it was going to be always OK,” said Federer of his relationship with Djokovic.
Djokovic, from Serbia, and Federer, from Switzerland, have met 46 times since 2006. Over such a stretch, which Djokovic leads, 24-22, some controversy is almost inevitable.
An outsider would have been troubled to discern their tepid relational history had they parachuted into Chicago last week. The stars teased each other on social media, with Federer asking Djokovic if he would recreate the iconic lift scene between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in the film “Dirty Dancing.”
They joked with each other in interviews. They shared team dinners, offered counsel and cheered on teammates while discussing everything from match strategy to child rearing to tour politics. There was Federer hovering behind Djokovic’s bench and doling out advice during Djokovic’s loss Saturday night to Anderson, who is from South Africa. (Djokovic, despite his hot form, went 0-2 in his maiden appearance at the Laver Cup, though Europe won for a second consecutive year.)
The competition’s chummy, bromance-heavy atmosphere did little to detract from the competitive juice during play. Matches were tight, hard-fought and enthralling. Eight of 11 were settled by the 10-point match tiebreaker. Both teams squandered multiple match points, including five by Team World in three matches they lost.
Chicago had not hosted a top-level men’s tennis event since 1991. It drew 93,584 fans, easily surpassing last year’s figure of 83,273. The reception at the United Center, home of the NBA’s Bulls and NHL’s Blackhawks, was loud and appreciative.
Whether the Laver Cup can secure a permanent place in a crowded tennis calendar that faces a glut of new, revamped and resuscitated team events in the coming years remains to be seen. But enthusiasm from fans, sponsors and, most of all, players positions it well. Seven of the top 11 players in the world rankings suited up, though Nadal, No. 1, and Juan Martín del Potro, No. 4, sat out with injuries after expecting to play.
“If somehow tennis was like this every week of the year, it would be so much more enjoyable,” said Nick Kyrgios, the animated and unpredictable 23-year-old from Australia.
Tennis in the pre-professional period bred a certain camaraderie exemplified by the close-knit group of Australians — Rod Laver among them — that traveled the world with rackets in one hand and postmatch libations in the other.
The opening of the sport to professionals in 1968 escalated money and prestige, which have made it trickier to remain cozy at the top.
John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, the combative American stars who shared the stage from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, detested one another. In the 1990s, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi kept a disdainful distance.
Those tensions have eased, especially among the current crop of stars. Changing demographics is one reason. Players compete longer. Many are now parents, including Federer and Djokovic. Perhaps with age comes perspective.
Federer participated in the ribbon-cutting nearly two years ago when Nadal opened a tennis academy in Majorca. Nadal played against Federer in his first Match for Africa charity event in 2010.
That bipartisanship had not been the case with Federer and Djokovic until last week, when Federer attended a breakfast for the Novak Djokovic Foundation.
Federer said he and Djokovic were not about to “go on vacation together” after spending a few days on the same team. Familiarity has risks. McEnroe recalled when Connors called him out of the blue to practice before the 1982 Wimbledon championship, and then beat him.
“He had gotten slightly more familiar with my game, and that helped him,” McEnroe said.
Federer views friendly rivalries as a benefit to the game.
“I see myself also as a fan, as someone who wants to improve and learn,” he said of Djokovic. “Being close to a champion like him, it’s just exciting.”
On Friday, Federer expressed disappointment that after losing, he and Djokovic could not depart with an unblemished doubles record.
“We have to play again,” Djokovic interjected.
That coupling appears more possible than ever at a time when the lines of friend and foe are increasingly blurred.