Rafael Nadal’s tears revealed human side of Roger Federer rivalry: ‘an important part of my life is leaving too’

Out of all the unforgettable images from Roger Federer’s emotional sendoff at the Laver Cup, one in particular seemed to resonate in the tennis world and beyond: Rafael Nadal, Federer’s greatest rival, in tears throughout the retirement ceremony.

With 42 Grand Slam singles titles between them—Federer with 20, Nadal with 22—theirs was a rivalry that both defined a golden era of men’s tennis and took the game to new heights.

But it was always the mutual respect and camaraderie that shined the brightest—the same way it’s always done since a teenage Nadal burst onto the ATP Tour scene in 2004, amid the height of Federer’s dominant reign, as if to remind us all that the Swiss Maestro was still only human.

When it was all over on Friday night at The O2, after a dramatic and down-to-the-wire doubles defeat at the hands of Team World’s Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe, it was the human side that once again left the biggest mark.

“I have to say that the first couple of serves for me were super difficult,” Nadal told press after their 4-6, 7-6 (2), [11-9] loss. “I was not able to do the normal movement. I started with a double fault. I was shaking a little bit.

“[It has] been a difficult day to handle every single thing, and at the end everything become super emotional.

“When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving too, because all the moments that he has been next to or in front of me are important moments of my life.”

Could any other great sports rivalry compare? Equally matched competitors regularly push each other to be even greater, but for example, would Lionel Messi ever break down in tears at Cristiano Ronaldo’s retirement ceremony? Can anyone picture Sidney Crosby grasping Alex Ovechkin’s hand in solidarity, overcome with emotion at the end of his career?

And yet, that’s exactly what happened on Friday night. Most tellingly, no part of it felt out of place—in fact, it was a very fitting way for Federer to close this chapter on his career, and for tennis fans to celebrate the end of the ‘Fedal’ rivalry era at the same time.

“We started when I arrived on the tour, and when I started to be a better player, then Roger was always there in front of me,” Nadal said. “For me, [he] was always the guy to beat…”

“On court, we have completely opposite styles, and that’s what probably makes our matches and our rivalry probably one of the biggest and most interesting,” Rafa added.

“But in the family life, personal life, probably we approach life not in a very different way. That’s why we can trust each other, we can speak very often, and we’re able to speak very feeling free, feeling confident.”

“I don’t know how we got to this place over all these years,” Federer said. “We have been very connected, especially, I feel in the last 10 years, I’d say.

“I think we enjoy each other’s company, and we have so much to look back on, but also just enjoy spending time together. We have a million topics to cover.

“I always feel like any evening we ever spent together we never have enough time.”

As Friday night became Saturday morning on Federer and Nadal’s final evening together as professionals, that was how it felt for those witnessing it, too: a moment eternally etched in history, and yet over in the blink of an eye.