The wind made Jonah Kahn’s day. Were it not for the wind, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would not have been in Sea Point. And Jonah wouldn’t have been the only kid there to get Federer’s autograph. “Roger Federer just signed my ball [and I’m going to] keep it for a long, long time,” said the nine-year-old, who had come to the venue with his mom and brother after tennis practice to try and catch a glimpse of his favourite player.
Federer and Nadal were in Cape Town for the Match in Africa 6 exhibition tennis game, to raise funds for the Roger Federer Foundation. It was the first Match for Africa to be held on the continent, hence the slight name change.
With the wind peaking at almost 45km/h the day before the match, it had made a ball toss impossible for philanthropist Bill Gates that morning, forcing the afternoon event to move to the more sheltered courts of the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Sea Point. This last-minute change of venue gave residents and passersby unexpected courtside seats to a day-before hitting session with local players starring Nadal, Federer and his doubles partner Gates, his mom Lynette Federer and upcoming South African pro Lloyd Harris, who grew up on these courts and continues to call them home.
Harris had already spent time on the Match in Africa 6 exhibition court at the Cape Town Stadium in Green Point. “He [Federer] asked me to practise a little bit so we had a little hit, just to see how it is out there … I think the atmosphere is going to be incredible.” The court was painted to resemble a clay court, “so that Rafa can feel like he’s on clay. But actually the ball’s staying low and it’s shooting through fast. I think it’s definitely a more Roger-favoured court,” said Harris.
His instincts were spot on, as Federer took the match in three sets – 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 – maintaining his almost undefeated record in Match for Africa games. Only Nadal has beaten him before, winning the Spanish leg of the very first Match for Africa event in 2010.
“Is that right?” said Federer with a laugh. “Thanks for the reminder! All right, well, I’d better get him this time then.” Nadal was surprisingly less competitive. “I, well, I really don’t care,” he said with a chuckle. “Honestly, no, I am not here to win matches. I’m here just to, to support Roger’s foundation and to have, yeah, have an amazing event.”
‘This beautiful sport’
The Roger effect was evident from the get-go. Tickets for the event sold out in under 10 minutes, leaving many tennis fans dismayed. “When tickets sell out so quickly, you always know that some people will be left disappointed. That then hurts me, because I really hope a lot of the tickets came to the people who really actually deserve them and wanted them and not… the wrong people. But at the end of the day you can’t control it all,” he said in an interview with sports broadcaster SuperSport ahead of the event.
Nadal said on the day of the match that it was “a great message for the world of tennis, that here in South Africa we were able to sell the tickets that soon … I think at the end of the day is a great promotion for our sport that will encourage a lot of children and young people to practise this beautiful sport.”
Federer’s nature is partly what makes him the greatest of all time, over and above the records he says will undoubtedly be smashed as he has smashed those of others. This was evident after the match, when he admitted that “a lot of us, we worry what are the consequences and is it worth it to go for such a big stadium like tonight? And yes it was … I’m happy I’ve taken chances because you also in some ways take a chance to look ridiculous trying to fill a stadium like this.”
He needn’t have been concerned. Match in Africa 6 shattered the tennis match attendance record of 42 217 that he’d only recently set with Sascha Zverev in Mexico City in November, setting the new world record at 51 954. “This record is one for the people,” said Federer, “because with no people, a beautiful stadium is not enough.”
Comedian and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah stole the show in the celebrity doubles match opener, despite he and Nadal going down 6-4 to #Gateserer. Gates is a big supporter of Federer’s foundation and has partnered with him for the past three Match for Africa doubles games, winning them all. Noah not only challenged chair umpire George Phiri, despite Phiri’s best attempts to keep the game professional, he also took the mickey out of his partner’s serving ritual and engaged in a rather brave stare-off with the 20-times Grand Slam singles champion across the net.
Rivalry turned friendship
But Federer was the undoubted favourite, that elegant RF drowning out the smattering of yellow, red and raging bull logos in the stadium alongside Swiss flags, Roger emojis, four gold-lettered G O A T shirts and a crew in Wimbledon whites and wigs.
Federer is synonymous with Wimbledon, having won the title eight times, while Nadal is the King of Clay. Their rivalry dominated men’s tennis particularly in the late 2000s and they became good friends along the way. So it’s no mystery as to why Federer was prepared to spend nearly two years convincing Nadal to join him in Cape Town.
“I think life is much happier if you have a good relationship between rivals, no, and at the same time we’re happy to create a positive example, being toughest rivals but at the same time being able to respect and enjoy a lot the lifetime that we spend together,” said Nadal on match day.
A newer friendship for Federer, one that has been burgeoning with Springbok captain Siya Kolisi since the Rugby World Cup last year, has only elevated the tennis player’s status in South Africa. Federer said it was “nice to meet Siya [in person, the day before the match], a very inspirational figure on this continent, not just here in South Africa … Having grown up in townships … his story is so powerful.”
The stadium erupted when world champion Kolisi walked on to court for the coin toss – a commemorative 20-franc coin created by Swissmint last year, which Kolisi got to keep – and presented Federer with a personalised Springbok jersey that he promptly donned and wore for the warm-up, then folded up carefully before starting the match.
Federer, the philanthropist
Kolisi is the “kind of person, boy, family I’d like to help,” Roger told SuperSport. “I really wanted to try to go with the foundation to areas where you really feel like it’s so complicated, so complex and where you can really help and make a difference.”
Although Kolisi is in no need of Federer’s help, there are many kids growing up like he did who are. This is where the Roger Federer Foundation comes in, the reason behind Match for Africa.
Federer started his grant-making foundation at the age of 22, which partners with mostly southern Africa charities to help give more children access to basic education and improve the quality of education being offered. The foundation has raised almost $50 million in the past 15 years, according to Federer, supporting 1.3 million children. “So, that the Match in Africa had to happen in Africa was logical.”
The sixth edition broke another record in terms of fundraising. It raised $3.5 million (about R52 million) for Federer’s foundation, up from $2.5 million at Match for Africa 5 in Silicon Valley, California. This will allow it to give another 90 000 kids a better education, the foundation tweeted.
From a tennis point of view, Harris said, “It’s good to have that [the event] in South Africa … More people, not just tennis fans, will be showing up there tonight and when they see that they’ll be like, oh wow, maybe we should be watching more tennis, be following this more closely. I mean, with 55 000 people, surely there’s going to be more interest in the sport and hopefully they’ll be following us, the South African players more as well.”
“I think it’s great, you know, just raising the profile of tennis throughout the country … There’s been a few ups and downs, but I think things are on the up and hopefully as the years go by there’ll be more people playing tennis, grassroots level. We’ll see more, both men and women, competing at the Grand Slams and I think when that happens, it’s … a positive trend,” said top-ranked South African men’s player Kevin Anderson ahead of his showdown with Harris in the Soweto exhibition match a week earlier.
By staging and hosting the match in Cape Town, Federer even had a positive effect on an Uber driver’s day. Blessed was only too happy to be on his sixth trip to the airport the day after the game, much preferring the longer drive to the short, stop-start trips in the areas around the stadium.
The event also gave South Africa’s young tennis talent the opportunity to show off their skills as ball kids at a world-class event, with the top two players in each of the junior age groups in the country selected for the honour.
For Leo Matthysen, the top boy’s Under-14 player in South Africa, “it was a dream come true! Being so close to them and watching them play was something I can’t explain. At times it felt like I was running and hitting with them as the energy on court was so much! Words can’t explain the excitement I felt at that time.”
It was Leo’s first live tennis match of this calibre and he’s feeling even more determined to work at his game, having seen his idol up close. “I have been a fan of Rafa since I started tennis, so seeing him play inspired me. I play left-handed like him and base my game around his game, with my own style as well.”
One of our own
Federer has the standing and the sway to pull off ideas not many others could, from getting top-ranked players to team up for the Laver Cup year after year, where there are no ranking points to be gained, to playing five exhibition matches in six days in Latin America and instigating six fundraising Match for Africa events within a decade.
And he seems to be embracing his South Africanness. “I’m so proud that I have my roots here in South Africa,” he said after the match. Despite his career keeping him away for most of the past 20 years, he spent up to two months a year in the country as a child and says that deep down, this had a profound impact on him. This time around, he was simply “so happy to be in SA. It’s been a long time.” He has family bonds here through his mother Lynette, who is from Johannesburg and played a large part in Match in Africa 6.
If not before, Federer has now claimed and been claimed as one of South Africa’s own. And he’s clearly thinking about another Match in Africa, “maybe not just Cape Town but other cities around the country,” he said before the event. It’s something he repeated after the match when he “told Trevor on the court … can we do, maybe, another Match in Africa? Like next month?” If, as Federer says, his age allows for it, Harris is ready: “That would be incredible.”