The last two years, the Australian Open has ended in joy for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. One fell down flat on the court, limbs outstretched. The other lifted his arms to the sky. But this year’s Aussie Open, like every tournament they play, began with them being forced into a more tedious and obligatory position: Staring into the lights and cameras at a pre-tournament press conference.
The interview room at Melbourne Park has the atmosphere of a lecture hall at a small, harsh private school (apparently it doubles as a classroom at times over the course of the year). Reporters sit in seats well above the players, who, because of the bright lights shining in their faces, have trouble making out their accusers. The low, sharply sloping ceiling contributes to the claustrophobic feel of this narrow space.
Federer made his appearance first. He was lower-key than usual, leaning right into the first question with no smile and no extraneous remarks. He stayed subdued throughout, with the exception of a backwards glance at all the doubters who kept “talking” about his demise even after his Australian Open win last year. When asked about his plans and goals, he didn’t mention Wimbledon this time, the way he usually does. He just kept his focus on the Aussie Open, which he seems to consider a tiny season of its own. He and Nadal will both have more time off after this than they did after the World Tour Finals.
Federer talked about how the game is still about more than the Slams for him, but he sounded what I thought was an usually philosophical, and for a pro athlete, reasonable note about how he much this tournament, or any tournament, means to him now. “We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “If I don’t win, look, someone else was better, and that’s OK.” It was too rational not to believe, and it made me think the years of battling for every match and tournament and ranking spot have left him with a more philosophical perspective than he once had, even about his own results. Or maybe it was just the day.
He also showed himself to be a true tennis junkie. Federer said that he first had the idea for the flood-relief charity event when he heard that the city of Rockhampton had been hit hard. “I right away thought of Rod Laver, you know,” Federer said, displaying his knowledge of Laver’s original nickname, the Rockhampton Rocket.
Federer went farther into fan mode when, asked about whether Nadal’s Rafa Slam was equivalent to a Grand Slam (yes, this really is how we spend our Saturdays), he said, “Obviously, the classic one is the one that Rod Laver did twice. That will always be that way. That’s why it’s a very exciting Australian Open, to see if Rafa can do it . . . So I’m excited to see how he goes.”
There was a little bit of a “Wait, did he just say what I think he said?” sense in the room. Federer is becoming a Nadal backer now? Are we going to see him in a "Got Rafa?" T-shirt soon? I guess it’s only fair, considering that Nadal has always been the president and secretary of Roger’s fan club. Should we be appalled at his development? After some initial reservations during their exo season this winter, I'm liking the idea more. I highly doubt that Federer’s professed fandom will affect his desire or ability to terminate the Rafa Slam. “If I get a chance,” he said, “I hope I can stop him, obviously.” (That's not exactly Muhammad Ali material, but whatever.)
Second, it's a grown-up twist on the idea of the sporting rivalry, and it has at least one precedent: Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were immediate and lifelong friends. (At the height of their own rivalry, Borg and McEnroe grew further/farther apart). Federer and Nadal will be paired forever, and there’s no fighting that. Federer’s veteran perspective seems to have allowed him to enjoy both of their successes. (Or, who knows, maybe Tennis Australia paid him to say all that to hype the tournament, and he really just wishes Rafa would break both of his knees in the first round.)
Later in the afternoon, it was Nadal’s turn to face the music. He opened with a “Hello, Happy New Year, everyone.” Then he got down to the urgent business of lowering all expectations. He said he hopes his illness won’t affect him in his first round. He said he’s not worried about the Rafa Slam, because the pressure of one major is enough. Told that Federer had said Nadal was the favorite at this tournament, Nadal, stunningly, disagreed. “I for sure am feeling less favorite than him,” he said, “and not more favorite than Djokovic, Murray, Soderling, these kind of players, no?” (With that phrasing, he sounds like a kid who wasn't asked to the dance.) Nadal was most comfortable when he was asked a pure tennis question, about whether he would change his racquet or not. He sat back and crossed his legs and said, “Maybe you can win more money with a company, but if you lose little bit of your feeling and you lose little bit more than before, you are less happy than before. And is more important to be happy than the money in general. That’s what I feel.” Vintage Rafa.
Later in the interview, Nadal was asked about his “desire to keep improving all the time.”
“I think the important thing is keep focus, keeping have the right illusion and motivation to improve your tennis even if you are on the top. And I think that’s why Roger was . . . pause . . . is on the top for long, long time, no?”
That “was” was left out of the transcript of the presser, but it’s a key to understanding how Nadal feels about Federer. Even though he’s No. 1 and Federer is No. 2, and even though Nadal has prevented him from continuing to dominate the sport over the last three years, Rafa doesn’t want to think of Federer as having slipped from the mountaintop in any way. You might think this is a clever way to keep the pressure on Federer, and off of him. It’s not. You might think he needs to be No. 2 to play his best. That’s not it, either. Nadal is, as much anything else, a fan of his own newest fan, Roger Federer.
Federer likes/liked Tiger. Nadal likes Spain's soccer team. Federer roots for Nadal, Nadal roots for Federer.
Front-running. So uncool.