When Roger & Rafael showed us men that it’s okay to cry
In an age where moments of tenderness are like gold dust, the image of two
grown men tearing up hand in hand in front of a worldwide audience felt like
an emotional revolution.
It also felt like a cathartic release for us men. Because, for years, through our childhoods and into our adult lives, we were told that men don’t cry, that they are supposed to keep their feelings in check. But, oh, the damage that has done to us, the scars it has left on our psyches. When every time we struggle to fully express what is inside of us, we die a little.
But on that September evening last year, at the Laver Cup, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal showed us that it’s okay to let it all out, to be vulnerable, to be a man and cry.
A farewell to Federer, the tournament turned into an outpouring of love for an
icon and his glittering and accomplishment-filled career, a career that has been defined by the storied rivalry he shared with Nadal. Without the other across the net, the Swiss and the Spaniard would not have grown to be the legends they are today. Come the final goodbye, the two just had to be together. Only now, they were in each other’s corner.
Those tears in London were tears of pain and of joy. Pain, because these gents would no longer push themselves to even greater heights, would no longer compose yet another tennis symphony. Joy because, for all that modern sport can oftentimes seem gladiatorial, it had been a beautiful journey, one full of mutual respect, and one in which a little bit of Rafa became Roger, and a little bit of Roger became Rafa.
Small wonder that all those emotions came streaming out of them. And out of us too.
Still, it’s not as if men haven’t broken down in public before. Federer himself struggled to hold back the tears in the wake of a gut-wrenching loss in the final of the 2009 Australian Open, when he finished second best to Nadal. But, throughout a life in pursuit of excellence and fulfilment, this sensitive man has often welled up in front of the cameras, never thinking it to be a sign of weakness. There have been others. Pete Sampras’s game face gave the impression that he’d rather keep it all in but I’ll never forget his sobbing on court at the Australian Open in 1995, triggered by a fan urging him to ‘do it for Tim (Gullikson)’, the American’s coach who collapsed in Melbourne following a seizure. That day, we learnt that Sampras was, after all, only human, as we did when he returned to the US Open in 2003 – a year after so memorably winning his 14th and final grand slam there – to tearfully take his leave from a sport he had so enriched.
Andy Murray, the Scot whose taciturnity almost matches his coach Ivan Lendl’s, cried after losing his fourth straight Grand Slam final, at Wimbledon against Federer in 2012 (redemption was at hand just a few weeks later, when he triumphed at the US Open for his first major title). And England’s Paul Gascoigne too, all those years ago, following a World Cup semi-final defeat against the (then) West Germans, back when football loudly wore its masculinity on its sleeve.
Kim Hughes’s tearful resignation from the captaincy was one of Australian cricket’s most poignant episodes, and came in the same year the country’s prime minister, Bob Hawke, broke down in a televised press conference when opening up about his daughter’s drug problems. Five years later, again on live TV, Hawke was overcome with emotion while speaking about the murder of pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. And we discovered that behind even the toughest Aussie lay an empathetic soul.
Closer home, Dilip Vengsarkar, finding himself on the wrong end of the scoreline in an unforgettable Ranji Trophy final (Bombay vs. Haryana, 1991), was inconsolable after it was all over, cutting a desolate figure on the field as he pondered over cruel fate. Victory and defeat are part of the fickle sporting life but a pained Vengsarkar, in the autumn of his career, took this loss especially hard.
Yet, when Federer and Nadal cried at the O2 Arena – after falling short by the slimmest of margins, in their doubles encounter against Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe – we cried with them. It was hard not to. For, they knew and we knew that this was the last time they’d be on court, this time on the same side of the net. And even if there was no fairytale finish, it made for a lovely coda, and a stirring closing chapter to what had been a gilded rivalry.
We will remember the tennis, of course we will. From their first match-up in 2004 to the last in 2019, we’ll remember it all with gratitude. But, we can’t ever forget the tears they shed, tears that layered what was a celebratory occasion with a patina of wistfulness. For, when good things come to an end, the tears are never far away, are they?
The tears that night told the millions who sat rapt – among them fathers, brothers and sons – that there’s nothing embarrassing about having a good cry. It just makes your heart feel lighter, and allows others a window into your soul. In a world stalked by insensitivity, two champions dared to embrace their emotions, and we wept alongside as we bade them adieu and adios, and our eyes said, ‘Thank you for the memories’.