“This rivalry is intense!” Roger Federer joked at Indian Wells on Friday night, after Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi engaged in some verbal (and in Pete’s case, non-verbal) crossfire during their Hit for Haiti charity doubles match. It was a valiant attempt to break the tension and a subtle reference to the more mellow relationship Roger shares with Rafael Nadal.
The 2008 Wimbledon final, the tears in Australia, the endless picking on his backhand – nothing Rafa could do to him would ever get as ugly as this.
After Roger’s match on Sunday, reporters asked him to explain the difference between his sweet and spicy rivalry with Rafa and the more bitter one between the two Americans.
Q. Did it [the awkward moment at Hit for Haiti] bring home to you what a special relationship you have with Rafa? Because your predecessors, the guys that have gotten in that situation haven’t always been as friendly as you two are.
ROGER FEDERER: Look, every rivalry is very different, you know. Thank God they are, otherwise it would be boring again, you know.
And obviously we’re not from the same country, so that changes many dynamics in a rivalry. Then again, we’re not the same age, so that changes again.
So obviously he [Rafa] came up and always had very big respect for me, and me the same for any player out on tour. So that was, I think — that gave it a good start for both of us, you know.
Then we played on so many occasions and on so many tough and heated moments we came out on top, and you know, I think we respected each other immensely and actually almost appreciated the other guy for being there and pushing, you know, you to become a better player, and I guess at times even a better person, you know.
So I think we’ve lived many, many incredible moments together on a tennis court, and I think we’re thankful to each other in this regard.
Yes, there’s more to the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry than the typical contrast in playing styles and personas. It’s the exemplary way they both behave as sportsmen, as well as athletes, that’s such a joy to watch. Not that I didn’t enjoy watching Sampras serve over Agassi’s head on Friday, but the feeling I had afterwards was about as inspiring as a day in front of a Real Housewives of the OC marathon.
Roger says he hopes that the rivalry stays healthy, along with Rafa:
Q. Just talk about your mutual respect with Nadal. Tennis is an individual sport, and obviously you’re playing for yourself, but can you get outside of that? And with someone like Rafa, having the injuries he’s had at a young age, do you get concerned for the game when you see that kind of thing happening, or are you just sort of still in your little world and don’t get really bothered about stuff like that?
ROGER FEDERER: No, no, sure I do care. And I pay attention to things like that, otherwise I wouldn’t ask him how are you doing after not seeing him for five weeks. It’s not just like the classic, Hey, what’s up? It’s like, How are you really doing? Because it’s important that a guy like Rafa stays in the game.
I must say he’s hung in there pretty good actually considering, because years ago people were saying, He’s not going to last. He’s going to have really issues. I mean, this is not the break he’s had. I’ve played one more match than him, the final of the Australian Open. And since we’ve both been resting or been away because we had to. So that, to me, is not a real injury break, you know. It’s really when you cannot go on the tennis court anymore for three to six months. This is when it gets tough, you know.
He’s obviously a player who needs to play and needs to practice, and I think he’s done really well to hang in there, you know. He’s doing all the necessary things to stay healthy. I mean, I see him all the time taping and stuff and stretching and doing necessary work. It’s hard. It’s a grind, you know.
He loves the sport, you know, a lot.
We’re still in the running for a Federer vs. Nadal final at Indian Wells. It would be a fitting way to shove the Agassi vs. Sampras nastiness out of the spotlight*. Long live Fedal!
*The thing about Agassi, he really likes the spotlight – at least when he’s Stage Manager. While Pete seems to be avoiding the subject, Andre’s gone on a mini PR campaign post Hit for Haiti. Here’s his public apology (he’ll also be interviewed on Tennis Channel on Tuesday):
“It was out of line,” Agassi told ESPN.com on Monday. “It was inappropriate. The night was on fire. We were all having fun. I was trying to be comedic. I only had a split second to make a decision. I went for it and it fell flat. I was trying to get past it, but Pete didn’t really let me get past it. He didn’t really roll with it. I’ve texted Pete to ask him if I can apologize in person.”
“The joke fell flat and I’m sorry,” he added. “My hope was that the night was still enjoyable.”
Yeah, I don’t blame Pete for ignoring his texts either. I think it would be better for both guys to just let this story fizzle out and die like a bad TV pilot. I’ll be watching Indian Wells, anyway.