Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: Behind the ‘raw’ photo that captures their enduring friendship


It was a moment – as brief as half a second – that captured the intensity of the relationship and rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Photographer Ella Ling stood at the edge of the square with her camera ready and awaited Federer’s farewell to tennis to be charged with emotion – but when the moment came, she was surprised by the tears and admiration.

Ahead of her at London’s O2 Arena were Federer and Nadal – the Swiss star’s longtime friend and rival – sat hand in hand and sobbed uncontrollably.

As the scene unfolded after Federer’s final game, Ling started clicking away on her camera, hoping for the best.

“It was only when I went back to my computer and downloaded everything that I found this shot and thought, ‘Wow, that’s the one I want to share with everyone,'” Ling, who follows the men’s and women’s tennis tours 24/7 around the world, told CNN sports.

The image in question – a shot of Federer’s hand on Nadal’s while Ellie Goulding performs ‘Still Falling For You’ during the Laver Cup – has garnered widespread attention, capturing a scene Ling has never seen on a tennis court.

“I just wanted to capture an image that really encapsulates the feel of the night but also a moment in the story when he [Federer] is finally playing his last match and he’s retired,” she adds.

“I would have loved to have had an iconic image, but I never thought I would actually get one.”

Ling's photo of Federer (left) and Nadal holding hands during the Laver Cup has proved extremely popular with tennis fans.

The Laver Cup was an opportunity to pay tribute to Federer’s glittering tennis career, even if the results weren’t in his favour.

Aside Nadal, he lost his doubles match to Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe on day one of the tournament and then stayed on the sidelines for the next two days as Team Europe lost 13-8 to Team World.

But the images that are likely to define Federer’s swan song are those of him and Nadal – rivals for more than 15 years with 42 Grand Slam titles together – struggling to keep their emotions in check.

“Outside the court, I think they (Federer and Nadal) share very, very similar values ​​and morals,” Ling says.

“They value family very much, they value respect. They are both very, very noble. They always win sportsmanship awards and things like that. I think that’s where they connected.

“But at the same time, I don’t think either of us really understood how close they were. I didn’t realize how close they were until that moment and throughout the evening (when).

Federer (left) and Nadal watch a video montage after their doubles match at the Laver Cup.

Over the course of their rivalry, Federer and Nadal have played 40 times, including in nine Grand Slam finals – six of which were won by Nadal. After so much fighting on the pitch, according to Ling, it was a captivating sight to see both players in tears.

“You have these two manly men — they are manly athletes who… would try not to show emotion on court, and rarely would you see a lot of emotion off court as well,” she says.

“It’s unbelievable that in this moment they’re just sitting there, crying uncontrollably, holding hands in front of 17,000 people there – and millions of others on TV – and just being so pure, so raw and so open about it.

“I think it will also do society a lot of good to see that.”

For his part, Federer said the moment with Nadal was a “secret thank you” and that he hopes to snag some of the photos from the Laver Cup.

“I think all the boys – Andy [Murray]Novak [Djokovic] and Rafa too – saw their careers flash before their eyes and knew we were all on borrowed time in a way long enough,” said Federer The New York Times.

“When you get older, you get into your 30s, you know what you really appreciate in life, but also in sport.”

“You almost forgot you’re still being photographed… because obviously I couldn’t speak and the music was there, I think I just touched him,” Federer added.

Federer waves to the crowd at the Laver Cup in London.

Ling says she was well-positioned to take the photo of Federer and Nadal, out of the way of the television cameras that prevented other photographers from snapping the shot. She hopes it will long be remembered as one of the most recognizable photos in tennis — and the sport in general.

“That’s the beauty of photography,” says Ling, “you capture those moments and they’re there forever.”

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