For Laver Cup, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Are on the Same Side

In the back seat of a new van in an old city, a stubble-faced Rafael Nadal was laughing hard on my right and a stubble-faced Roger Federer was laughing harder on my left.

The topic was doubles, which Federer and Nadal will most likely play together in earnest for the first time at the inaugural Laver Cup this weekend.

Nadal first lobbied to play doubles with Federer in 2006.

“I made him wait,” Federer joked, with a baritone giggle. “When you make somebody wait, they appreciate it more, so that’s why he’s so excited.”

Nadal responded with his delightfully approximate English: “Good things wait. But I don’t know if that much wait is going to be for a good thing or a negative thing.”

Back across the van to Federer: “I just hope we are going to win. I hope we didn’t wait too long, because we’re too old now.”

Federer, 36, and Nadal, 31, have, of course, shared plenty of road and court in their careers.

They have played for charity: raising funds for flood relief at the Australian Open in 2011. They have played for novelty: competing against each other in the weird-but-true “Battle of Surfaces” in 2007 in Majorca, Spain, where one half of the court was red clay and the other half grass.

They have played for posterity: facing each other 37 times in official matches over the last 13 years, including three times in 2017, their surprising season of mutual renaissance.

But until now, with the exception of a few games on the same side of the net in that Australian charity event in 2011, they have never been teammates.

“Look, we are, I think, all our lives rivals, so to be together now is going to be something very special, I think unique,” Nadal said. “I think it’s going to be a great feeling.”

Nadal and Federer (or is that Federer and Nadal?) are the main attractions of Team Europe, which will face another six-man squad representing the rest of the world in the three-day Laver Cup, beginning Friday.

The event will be played on a black, indoor hardcourt in a sold-out O2 Arena here. The new competition, which will be held every year except when there is a Summer Olympics, was inspired by golf’s Ryder Cup.

It is named for Rod Laver, who at age 79 has made the trip here from his home in Carlsbad, Calif. He is the only singles player to have completed two Grand Slams — winning all four major tournaments in the same calendar year (he did it in 1962 and 1969). He was on stage Wednesday with the teams in a packed Old Town Square for a welcome ceremony here.

Like the Ryder Cup, which dates to 1927 and now pits Europe against the United States, the Laver Cup has captains: Bjorn Borg for Team Europe and John McEnroe for Team World. It will ultimately be Borg’s call if and when “Fedal” becomes a doubles pair.

“I think there’s a good chance,” Borg said.

Once in the quiet of the van, Federer and Nadal sounded more nervous about playing doubles than about beating Team World. Federer, who won an Olympic gold medal in doubles in 2008, has not played men’s doubles since 2015, when he went 0-3. Nadal won the Olympic gold medal last year with Marc López but has played only one doubles tournament this season.

“Where do you play normally?” Nadal asked Federer, trying to figure out who might line up on which side of the court.

Federer said he had more often played the deuce court but added, “for me, Rafa decides what side he wants to play on.”

While Federer and Nadal traded quips and observations as the van rumbled over Prague’s cobblestones, Borg and his vice captain, Thomas Enqvist, sat quietly in the back row and took it all in.

Borg, the Nadal or Federer of his era, never had a chance to team up with fellow Europeans. There are legitimate questions and concerns about the Laver Cup, an event that Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick, essentially imposed on a sport that has long had an overstuffed schedule.

With Tennis Australia and the United States Tennis Association supporting the Laver Cup, the event could also harden battle lines with the International Tennis Federation, which is trying to preserve and revamp Davis Cup, the 117-year-old men’s team competition that is the I.T.F.’s primary source of funding.

Federer and Godsick insist that they don’t view the Laver Cup as a rival to Davis Cup. But the Davis Cup semifinals and World Group qualifying round were played just last weekend, and the game’s biggest stars did not take part.

believe we were a little bit lucky at the beginning of the season that we played well, and always the beginnings are tough after injuries,” Nadal said. “You need to win these kind of matches that change the confidence, change the feeling, and that’s what happened. The important thing is the body holds up.”

Federer said that the back problems that hampered him during the North American hardcourt season this summer were, for now, not an issue, and that he definitely needed a rest. This is not much of one.

He was practicing in Prague less than two weeks after he lost in the quarterfinals of the United States Open to Juan Martín del Potro, who pulled out of the Laver Cup because he felt he had not yet recovered (his absence further slims Team World’s already meager chances).

But Nadal, who arrived in Prague little more than a week after winning the U.S. Open, said he felt the Laver Cup, where matches will be best-of-three sets with a super-tiebreaker instead of a full third set, was worth a quick turnaround.

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