Tennis' Teams of the Decade: Federers and Nadals, Brothers and Sisters
Tennis is one of the most punishing of all sports on the individual.
The player walking onto court is entirely alone, dependent on his or her own body and mind, passion and commitment, a lifetime of training and often years of hardship. It all comes down to one person, laying it on the line match after match, week after week, city after city.
There’s no room for an off day: No room, indeed, for an off 10 minutes. The match may turn from a huge lead to the closest of losses in the blink of an eye.
And there’s no-one else to share the blame, share the pain.
But off court, most of these gladiators succeed through the constant support of a close retinue: friends, family, and colleagues who make all the difference.
Here are some of the most enduring relationships of the decade.
What is there left to say about the dominance of the women’s Tour by tennis’ most successful siblings?
Between them they have 18 singles Grand Slam titles—11 for Serena and seven for Venus.
Serena has been runner-up in three more, has won the WTA championships twice (this year beating Venus in the final), and is the highest earning female athlete.
Venus has been runner-up in seven more (six times to her sister!), has won the WTA championships once, and has an Olympic gold medal. She is the second highest earning women’s tennis player ever.
They have won six of the past 12 women's majors between them, and have met in eight Slam finals.
It’s one of the most remarkable family achievements in sport—all the more so when you consider their humble origins, and that their careers and coaching have been handled entirely within the family, by father Richard. Already, this is a great team.
But it becomes even more exceptional when the two sisters join forces and become, literally, a playing team. They have won 10 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles since 1999 and are the reigning Australian, Wimbledon, and US champions. They also won Olympic gold together in 2000 and 2008.
That their personalities are such a contrast adds to their charm and compatibility. Venus, the “grown-up” of the pair, is contained, quiet, sensible. Serena is more in-your-face, extrovert, her own woman. Both are beautiful, both pursue many interests outside tennis, and each stands up for the other against all-comers.
If ever there was a lesson in how to manage sport as a profession, ruling it rather than letting it rule you, these are the model.
They have plans to carry their domination into the next decade, too. Fitness and enthusiasm permitting, there is already talk of pairings with fellow Americans for the Olympic mixed doubles.
Should their respective pairings make the finals, that would indeed be a family battle worth watching!
Roger Federer gets through coaches like they’re going out of fashion. Once it became clear to him how to win the big matches, he has picked the brains of this expert and that to freshen his perspective, or to practise a new tactic.
Most, like his associations with Darren Cahill and Jose Higueras, were short-lived, yet there was no suggestion of bad feeling when they parted ways. They had been simply professional and amicable transactions that had served their purpose.
Federer, instead, has ploughed his own furrow in the confident context of a band of long-term, loyal, and trusted friends. It is these who provide his day-to-day training and management needs, and who run his career like a well-oiled machine. There’s conditioning maestro, Pierre Paganini, Swiss tennis coach, Severin Lüthi, and—most important of all—there’s Mirka.
Federer met Mirka long before fame and fortune came along, and they have remained partners since he was just 18.
Against the showbiz glitz of the ATP road-show, it has been a relationship of singular constancy, respect and friendship. Amidst public obligations and generous face-time with the public, they remain private and discrete. They even managed to marry, near home, amid the media hype surrounding the news of impending parenthood, in complete secrecy. No wonder he stays loyal to the same network of trusted and loyal friends.
Now with baby twins, Roger and Mirka are still, quite literally, inseparable. As soon as she gave the word, the Federers, with their babies not yet six weeks old, packed up and resumed the tennis tour in North America.
Mirka sits courtside when he’s on duty, he shares nappy duty when he’s off. It’s a partnership that provides the emotional bedrock on which the Federer career is built. And it will be there long after his life has moved on to pastures new.
December 2009 saw the climax of a decade of dominance in the Davis Cup by one country: Spain.
In beating the Czech Republic 5-0 in the final, the Spanish men claimed their fourth title—the first was in 2000—plus one runner-up position in the space of 10 years.
With this latest win, the No. 1 nation in the ITF Davis Cup rankings extended its unbeaten run at home to 18 ties and on clay to 20 ties. Its last defeat on home soil, which was also its last loss on clay, was in a different millennium: 1999.
What's most noticeable is that this truly is a team effort, and not success built on a couple of elite players. Four of the squad played in this year’s final, but six played live rubbers during the year’s campaign.
So Spain’s team is hot property, and there is no sign of its fire being extinguished any time soon. This is a nation awash with men in the ATP rankings—currently nine in the top 50. So, while world No. 2 Rafael Nadal spearheaded the 2009 triumph, No. 9 Fernando Verdasco did the honors in their 2008 win.
Verdasco is also half of a formidable doubles pairing with Feliciano Lopez—they are 24 in the doubles rankings, and seem to explode into world-breaking form when playing together for Spain.
Indeed, passion and friendship are central to the whole team. The squad bonds like comrades in arms, a patriotic brotherhood, lifting one another to the most intense of performances in every rubber of every tie. Their enthusiasm, after so many titles, seems undiminished. It’s difficult to see who can dampen their fire any time soon.
“They are good together.” So says the mother of Marat Safin and his sister Dinara Safina. It’s a view of this special twosome that rarely breaks through the media veneer.
Since Safin broke onto the men’s tennis scene, all charisma, cheekbones, and unbridled talent, to win his first Grand Slam in 2000, he has thrilled and frustrated his many fans in equal measure. He is known to be a free spirit, passionate, and eager to enjoy not only tennis, but also life to the fullest.
The image of his younger sister could not be more different. For Safina, six years his junior, admits to few outside interests:
“For me it’s tennis first: tennis, tennis, and tennis. I don't do anything besides tennis. It's my life and I've chosen it…when I finish my career I can say: ‘OK, at least I was honest to myself, I gave everything.’”
Their difference was epitomised when they joined forces to play in the Hopman Cup in Australia in January. Safina arrived early to work on her game, while Safin turned up late with two black eyes. “I wasn’t in the right place at the right time, but I won the fight.”
They reached the final, nevertheless.
But on the rare occasions when the curtain is lifted, the world catches a glimpse of a close relationship.
Their mother continued: “Their spirits are pretty much identical. They have the souls of a brother and sister and always felt that way, and as parents we put in much effort and time so that they would grow together.”
Big brother showed his true colors at the moment in 2009 when Safina finally reached the No. 1 ranking after seven years on the Tour (she’d broken into the top 100 as a 17-year-old in 2002). People quibbled that a player without a Slam title was not a worthy No. 1, to which he countered:
“I am very proud of what Dinara has accomplished and it is sad and hurtful to me that all anyone ever wants to talk about is her not winning a Grand Slam. I feel very protective of her. I have supported her through the years and will always do so. She doesn’t deserve the negativity. She is the ultimate success story. She has proven that you can get to No. 1 by working incredibly hard. She is the perfect sportswoman.”
Such was his belief in her that he funded her early development and subsidised her career until she broke through.
The young Safina reached No. 1 almost nine years after her brother achieved the same. They thus became the only brother/sister duo ever to achieve this.
What a perfect retirement present for her devoted older brother.
Footnote: though there were many photos of Marat playing at the Hopman Cup, the Russian siblings were the only pairing not to yield a joint photo. Safina may well wonder what she has to do to emerge from his shadow....
Where Federer’s “constant” is Mirka, Rafael Nadal is supported by the ever-present uncle Toni.
This has to be one of the longest and most successful coaching partnerships in the tennis world, and its longevity may be due, in no small part, to the fact that Toni is a mentor, friend, and emotional anchor—indeed very much an echo of Mirka Federer.
The Nadal family is wide yet close, with almost the entire network still based around the family home in Mallorca. Toni is the brother of Rafa’s father, and introduced his nephew to tennis at four, when he himself was barely out of university. Toni willingly took on responsibility for the young Rafa when, at 12, he opted for a career in tennis rather than football.
Toni’s approach, however, has as much to do with philosophy as with physical coaching. While he was quick to train the right-handed Rafa to adopt left-handed tennis in order to build greater strength on the backhand wing, he also instilled the values that Rafa epitomises: hard-work, modesty, sportsmanship, discipline, and perspective.
Toni used to get his nephew to train on poor courts with bad tennis balls, just to teach him that winning or losing wasn’t about equipment or surroundings, but attitude and hard work. He upbraided his nephew for his tears after losing the 2007 Wimbledon final, pointing out that it was a match, not life and death: there would be other chances.
He continues to make Rafa do his own laundry, maintain his own rackets, make his own phone calls. While he encourages all-out effort in Rafa’s tennis, he insists on self-reliance, modesty, and discipline off the court.
There is clearly the utmost respect and enormous affection between the uncle and nephew. And because Rafa can trust Toni implicitly, he is free to concentrate his enormous physical gifts, work ethic, and focus simply on playing tennis.
Here’s another pair of siblings, but from a completely different mould: or rather, from an identical mould. For Bob and Mike Bryan are identical twins.
One a leftie, the other a rightie, they have confounded other doubles teams for almost a decade.
Their break-through year was 2003 when they won their first of seven Grand Slam men’s doubles titles (and were runners-up in eight more) as well as three Masters Cups (now the Tour End Finals).
Between 2005 and 2006, they set an Open Era record by competing in seven consecutive men's doubles Slam finals, winning three.
These records make the brothers stand out from the crowd. But it is their consistency, longevity, and constant enthusiasm that make them such an iconic duo.
The Bryans—both Stanford graduates—have been ranked in the top three since July 2005, holding the top spot for around four of those four-and-a-half years. They broke the U.S. record for the most wins in Davis Cup doubles as a pair—15—in the tie against Switzerland in 2009. They’ve won 13 Masters titles and have been runners-up 13 times. And they have won at least five titles a season for eight straight years.
They give doubles tennis a good name, pouring heart, soul, and every scrap of energy into each and every match. They clearly love playing with each other (they won their first tournament together at the age of six!) and have the sort of natural rapport that non-twins can only dream of.
Their energy, their mirror-image game, and identical appearance, however, are every opponent’s nightmare.
And here’s a little something extra to look forward to in the next decade. It’s rumored that Bob Bryan will partner Venus Williams for the 2012 Olympics. At the moment, Andy Roddick is slated to partner Serena Williams, but that would surely spoil the party. Let Mike step up with Serena so the world can relish the prospect of brothers versus sisters for those gold medals.
Neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer has brothers. What they have between them, however, is as close to sibling rivalry as you can get: the male equivalent of the Williams sisters.
Federer and Nadal played their first match in 2004, by which time Federer was already No. 1 with two Slams under his belt. But Nadal won that early-round match in Miami, and has held sway ever since, 13 matches to seven.
Except for a month this summer, they have held the top two rankings on the ATP Tour since July 2005, and are the only pair of men to have finished four consecutive calendar years at the top.
Sixteen of their matches have been in tournament finals, and the rest—apart from that first match in Miami—have been in semis. From 2006 to 2008 they played in every French Open and Wimbledon final, and then they met in the 2009 Australian Open final. This makes them the only men in the Open era to have played each other in seven Grand Slam finals.
During this decade, then, they have not left much room for the other men on the Tour, and one might expect them to be sick of the sight of one another, or at the very least for there to be an “edge” to taint the rivalry.
On the surface, they have different ways of playing, different habits, different personalities. But, like the Williams sisters, they seem to complement rather than conflict. Neither has a bad word for the other, and both seem entirely comfortable with the other off the court.
Nothing summed up this sibling-like bond more than the award ceremony after Nadal’s dramatic win in this year’s Australian Open. Overcome by emotion, the on-court Federer calm gave way to tears, and he had to step back from the microphone. Nadal, in a moment of supreme comradeship, embraced him, consoled him, and ushered him forward again. Their words spoke volumes.
Nadal: “Rog, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now. Remember that you are a great champion and you are one of the best in history and you will beat Pete Sampras’ 14 titles for sure.”
Federer: “I don’t want to have the last word. This guy [Nadal] deserves it. So, Rafa, congratulations. You played incredible. You deserve it, man. You played another fantastic final.”
It’s as close to friendship as such bitter rivals could be, and a “team” for which the tennis world thanks its lucky stars.