Melbourne: There was a time when the mere presence of Rod Laver on Centre Court at Melbourne Park drove Roger Federer to tears.
On Wednesday, at a fundraising event billed as ‘An evening with Roger Federer and friends’, the 17-time Grand Slam winner finally got to find out what it’s like to have a few rallies against the man who twice completed the Grand Slam.
Laver, 75, strolled onto the court named in his honour in shorts and vest, and had a hit against the 32-year-old Federer, who is preparing for next week’s Australian Open. He played some solid forehands but decided to move closer in to volley after netting a few backhands. And he got a standing ovation from the 14,000-strong crowd.
“He told me that his wrist was hurting less on the forehand so he asked me to play there a bit more often!” Federer joked later.
Laver stayed to watch Federer beat 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5 in the main exhibition match. Organisers announced more than $1 million was raised before and during the event, an idea which Federer pitched to mark the 10 years since he first moved to No. 1, won the first of his four Australian Open titles and started his foundation.
“Hitting with Rod Laver for me clearly is an absolute dream come true… It’s an honour. It’s in his arena as well, it’s named after him and he deserves it so much,” Federer said. “While I was playing my raquet was feeling extremely heavy. That means I was very nervous, which I really was.”
Federer burst into tears after receiving the Australian Open winner’s trophy from Laver in 2006, and speaks with reverence about the Australian legend, the only man to complete two grand slams in calendar years.
“What an honour it was for me,” Federer said. “And I’m very thankful that he was willing to do something like this because it’s not normal in any way and that’s why I really appreciate it.”
Laver has returned the admiration and said during the Melbourne launch of his autobiography in October last year that the Swiss could hit back from his disappointing 2013 by winning the year’s first Grand Slam.
Federer heads into the Australian Open seeded sixth and after losing the final of the Brisbane International to fellow 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.“It’s a different feeling today and the enjoyment factor I get out of playing on tour is totally different... It’s a much deeper love I have today for the game and a much bigger appreciation and respect I have. (Agencies)