In a charity event for his foundation that felt more like a homecoming, Roger Federer on Friday beat his great rival, Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 at a soccer stadium in Cape Town.
It was Federer’s first match in his mother’s country of birth, and the country that he rates as his second home.
Almost everything at the event was for Federer: Caps and T-shirts with “RF” logos were seen throughout the crowd; “Welcome home, Roger” signs were held up; and the toss was conducted with a newly minted 20 Swiss Franc coin with Federer’s image on it (Federer recently became the first living Swiss to be engraved on one of the nation’s coins).
Even South Africa’s biggest sports stars were in awe.
Rugby player Siya Kolisi, captain of the South Africa team that won last year’s Rugby World Cup, came out pre-match to present Federer with a South Africa team jersey, with Federer’s name on the back. He was asked who he was supporting.
“Definitely Team Roger,” Kolisi said. “Sorry, Nadal, I love you, too.”
Nadal smiled graciously on the other side of the net.
The exhibition at Cape Town Stadium was to raise money for the Roger Federer Foundation, which supports early childhood education in six southern African countries, including South Africa. The foundation was hoping to surpass US$1 million from the exhibition — it raised US$3.5 million.
Also, a sellout crowd of 51,954 came to the stadium to watch Federer and Nadal turn it on. That is the biggest crowd ever on record for a tennis match.
Organizers said that about 200,000 people requested tickets.
“It was a magical evening,” said Federer, who came to South Africa regularly on childhood vacations with his family, but had not been to Cape Town in 20 years.
The 38-year-old Federer, winner of a record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, and the 33-year-old Nadal, with 19 slams, laughed and joked regularly between points, but they were typically competitive when the ball was in play.
Federer won the first point with a high backhand volley and broke in the first game on the way to taking the opening set 6-4.
Nadal broke back twice at the start of the second set and unleashed his big forehand winners, grunting loudly in the process, to level at one-set-all.
Federer won with a dainty drop shot on match point. Nadal gave everything to get there and was going so fast that he could not stop in time, but had to leap over the net.
He ended up standing next to Federer and they hugged.
“We tried our best as always,” Nadal said. “It’s a lifetime experience playing in front of such an amazing crowd in an amazing stadium. It was a big pleasure for me to be part of it.”
The match showed off the friendship that lies beneath the rivalry that began when Federer and Nadal first played each other on tour at the Miami Open 16 years ago.
Federer also revealed that on the day of the exhibition, Nadal told him for the first time that he secretly cried for joy when Federer finally won the French Open in 2009.
“I hope I can still play for a bit longer,” Federer said. “We’ll see how much more, but there’s still lots to look forward to. In my dreams, I never dreamed this far.”
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