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Federer and Nadal were the best of the rivals. In the end, they will be partners.

The rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has been a staple of the 21st century.

Right vs Lefty. Panache versus perspiration. Zen vs Come on.

In the past, it was also establishment vs. avant-garde, but that distinction has blurred over the decades, just as the edge has softened. Many of the new-age fans that Federer and Nadal brought to the game may need to be reminded that Federer is almost five years older than his ultimate rival from Mallorca.

That significant age difference helps explain why Federer will be the first of the golden-era gang to retire from professional tennis (even if Andy Murray came out in tears a few years ago before going ahead with an artificial hip joint). Federer turned 41 last month and will play what he insists is his last competitive match on Friday night at the Laver Cup team event in London.

“Sitting here, it feels good that I’m leaving first of the guys; it feels good,” Federer said at a news conference on Thursday, flanked by Murray, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, all his teammates for this special farewell weekend at the O2 Arena.

They were once the Big Four, with Murray serving as Ringo Starr, but they’ve long since become the Big Three. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic amassed 20 or more Grand Slam singles titles and won multiple majors in their 30s, often at the expense of others.

Their careers are deeply and inextricably intertwined, and Nadal and Djokovic have actually faced each other significantly more on tour than Nadal and Federer.

But Fedal was the original rivalry from the golden age, and if “Fedal” still sounds a little clunky, it’s best to consider the alternatives. “Naderer”? No, thanks.

Federer and Nadal first played singles in March 2004 in a night match in the third round of the Miami Open, with the 17-year-old Nadal ambushing the top-ranked Federer in just over an hour. The final score was 6-3, 6-3.

But their first match was actually the week before, when Nadal and fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo defeated Federer and fellow Swiss Yves Allegro 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the round of 16 in Indian Wells, California.

For those like me who like their symmetry, it feels pretty neat and tidy that Fedal will end up back on the doubles court, as they pair up, knees cracking willing, on Friday night for Team Europe against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of the World Team. .

“Different kind of pressure,” Nadal said of the occasion. “After all the amazing things we share together on and off the pitch, being a part of this historic moment will be something incredible and unforgettable for me. Super excited. I hope I get a good chance to play at a decent level, and I hope that together we can create a good moment and maybe win a game. So, let’s see.”

Victory is hardly guaranteed. Sock, whose forehand has even more topspin than Nadal’s or Federer’s, is one of the best doubles players in the world, and fellow American Tiafoe is still riding high after reaching the semi-finals of the This month’s US Open in singles. .

“Obviously tomorrow night is going to be more than an iconic night,” Sock said Thursday. “I’m excited to be a part of this with my friend Foe by my side. We will go out to enjoy the moment, but we will not keep quiet about anything. sorry roger I don’t want to spoil the night.”

Sock should perhaps be reminded that Federer co-owns this event, launched in 2017 to create a tennis version of golf’s Ryder Cup and establish a stronger bridge between generations, with captains John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg on benches. opposites and Rod Laver as the namesake.

But Federer, who wants the Laver Cup to be taken seriously even though it awards no ranking points, would surely have no problem with Sock and Tiafoe going full throttle. And honestly, it’s hard to imagine anything spoiling the night other than Federer limping around The O2, unable to cover his half of the court.

No one is up for that, even if Federer is cleverly trying to manage expectations.

When Borg, the silver-haired captain of Team Europe, was asked about his squad on Thursday, his response was: “Everyone is healthy. They are ready to play.”

Federer quickly chimed in: “Half healthy.”

Unprepared to play one more singles match due to his post-operative knees, Federer chose doubles as the safest option, but this will be his first competitive match in more than 14 months.

There will be rust, and then there will be emotions, yours and your crowd’s, and as the thousands of fans in attendance at Thursday’s open practice session made clear, there will be noise.

Ivan Ljubicic, one of Federer’s longtime coaches, took it all on the court and started crying, and he’s not even playing.

“I’m not sure I can handle it all; I’ll try,” Federer said. “I’ve also had some tougher times in the past, you know, I was terribly nervous all these years sometimes before matches. This one definitely feels a lot different.”

It’s different in part because his co-chief tormentors, Nadal and Djokovic, are teammates this time.

“I’m super excited to have them on our team and on my team and not have to play them in my last match,” Federer said.

It has certainly lightened the mood in the prelude.

On Thursday, Djokovic was asked which of his previous battles with Federer came to mind first.

Djokovic started gallantly in the 2007 US Open final against Federer.

Djokovic: “I lost that match.”

Federer: “He’s being nice now. Thank you Novak.”

Djokovic: “I’m not done.”

There was laughter, and he soon brought up the 2019 Wimbledon final, in which Federer had two match points on serve in the fifth set but was unable to close it out. (Djokovic didn’t gallantly go into these details, either.)

“What happened?” Federer asked. “I have blocked it.”

There was more laughter, which certainly hasn’t been the rule among men’s tennis rivals over the last two decades. So many major titles have been on the line so many times as they pushed each other on the match court and, in their quietest moments, on the practice court.

Everyone overcame that daily pressure, and Federer and Nadal concluded long ago that they had more reach as a pair than alone.

Fedal’s best singles matches have been some of the best content of the new century: the 2006 Italian Open final won by Nadal, the 2007 Wimbledon final won by Federer, the pièce de résistance The 2008 Wimbledon final won almost in the dark for Nadal, the 2017 Australian Open final won by Federer after both returned from lengthy injury layoffs.

The backlist is also strong, even if they, frustratingly for us symmetrical types, never played in the US Open. And while Nadal will always lead the series 24-16, Federer can slide into the twilight (and his future exhibition matches) with his strong chin held high after winning six of his last seven meetings.

“Through time, we’ve left behind a bit of that tough on-court rivalry for a rivalry that we value and understand has been part of something special within the world of sport,” Nadal once told me. “And I think we also understand that we’ve both benefited from that, and we have to take care of it.”

On Friday night, on the same side of the net at the end of an era, they will be able to take care of each other.

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