Alexander Zverev, who is playing the final singles for Europe versus The World in the Laver Cup, is taking a break before the climactic tie-breaker, just a youngster, 22, perhaps trying to collect himself. But in the tunnel he has Federer, 38, and Rafael Nadal, 33—teammates turned motivational speakers—nagging him like tennis’ version of Grumpy Old Men.
“I want a fist pump and ‘let’s go’ after every f***ing point you win," Federer insists. Nadal, whose swearing ability in English is unknown, adds: “And not one negative face."
F*** Europe, can Zverev afford to displease these guys? Of course he wins.
If Virat Kohli says “f***", we would like to send him a large Lifebuoy and gargling instructions. If Nick Kyrgios says it, we are happy to offer him a therapist’s number. When Federer goes R-rated, this is the kind of meek outrage that is mustered on Twitter: “A ‘human person’ finally. Nothing like a F- bomb to normalise a saint."
This Laver Cup is a competition but it’s also a champion-studying exercise. In a normal event, Nadal plays and disappears into the belly of a stadium, but here he lingers, cheers, fist-pumps, advises, like a one-man energy summit. It’s a chance to appraise unusual men even when they are not playing. Best to bring an intensity meter.
This throwaway corridor “f***" from Federer is mainly insignificant, but if you want to squeeze it for meaning, for the way he’s driving Zverev, then it reminds us that for all the Swiss’ refinement, you don’t get to 20 Slams without an inner savage.
Nadal’s caveman we are more familiar with but it’s his lack of an OFF switch which makes you grin. You would think these men, after 2,659 matches in total together on the ATP Tour, would want to catch a breath at this Cup, tone it down, but they are the equivalent of kids who dress up as Batman and Robin for comic conventions. They like this game, whatever its format, they devour it, keep giving to it, and in many ways this explains them. Greatness is appetite.
Nadal is injured and his enthusiasm has to go somewhere, so why not lecture Federer mid-match and give the old geezer a few tips against Kyrgios about length of rallies—even Federer knows you don’t argue rallies with Rafa. “He knows how much is enough," says Federer later, “and how much is too much. And he’s a great solution finder."
Watching these two short-panted sages in conversation is insightful, amusing but also bizarre. Because this is the rough equivalent of Phil Mickelson coaching Tiger Woods, it’s Lewis Hamilton polishing Sebastian Vettel’s strategy, it’s Garry Kasparov giving Anatoly Karpov an encouraging tap on the shoulder.
It’s a redesign of the ancient narrative on rivalry. Competitive men, with 186 ATP titles together, yet evolved ones, who have made each other cry on court yet giggle together, who exchange harsh shots but respectful words, who have blocked each other’s dreams and yet know they have advanced each other’s games. If anything, they embarrass their own fans, many of whom still feel the need to raise one by diminishing the other.
To watch these men was to witness a point being made. It was them gathering Stefanos Tsitsipas, Zverev, Dominic Thiem, all these youngsters in Team Europe, and setting an example right in their face, making tennis fun but never less ferocious, able to find commonality during a Cup and next week returning to opposite and grim sides of the net. Respect doesn’t thin their ambition or dilute their rage.
And what they did with Zverev, challenging him on his way to the change room, was a bit more than manufactured drama. Modern sport loves to talk about psychological advantage and yet, here, two ageing champions are trying to resuscitate the flailing season of Zverev. Trying to inject some confidence into a young man whose very ambition is to one day unseat these pensioners. It tells you about generosity but also about how secure these older men are, of their place in the tennis universe and in their understanding of their own talent.
We have seen friendship before, between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson eventually, so wonderfully captured in the book When The Game Was Ours. One day, Johnson goes down to Bird’s house to film a sneaker commercial and when he returns, writes author Jackie MacMullan, he phones his friend Byron Scott, also of the Los Angeles Lakers, and says: “I’ve got a different feeling about Larry Bird now.... I think we could end up being friends." Scott is stunned because, as he says, “We hated Larry Bird and the Celtics."
Sport’s favourite friendship tale, whose telling gets more romantic through time, involves Luz Long, the German long jumper, and Jesse Owens. It began at the 1936 Olympics and continued through letters. Long died in World War II, but reportedly asked this of Owens in a letter: “Go to Germany when this war is done, someday find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse...how things can be between men on this earth."
Camaraderie has a certain glitter, especially when it involves millionaire individualists who normally lean towards self-absorption and now must integrate within a team. Not everyone who watches will fall for it because they prefer the harder-edged version of sport, the no-pleasantries, all-day sledging, cold-shoulder, ear-biting, I-hate-United version of competition.
I like sport in so many of its forms, but I will miss these guys when they are gone. Because in a time of continued racism in football, entire nations being banned for drug-taking, official cruelty towards athletes like Caster Semenya, these imperfect men have found something that so many athletes can’t find.
They know where the f****** line is.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.
Twitter - @rohitdbrijnath