The world’s biggest names in men’s tennis today, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, faced-off on African soil for the first time at a celebrity charity match also attended by Bill Gates. FORBES AFRICA was witness.
This is the story of how on a balmy summer day in February, a billionaire, a late-night talk show host and two sporting legends came together for the mother of all tennis matches in The Mother City.
In the coastal city of Cape Town in South Africa, a sea of admirers at Cape Town Stadium on February 7 waited with bated breath for the men with racquets they had booked tickets months in advance to see. And this for an exhibition match titled, ‘The Match In Africa’, which drew a record crowd of 51,945, all for a good cause.
Security was tight. And the crowds were building up. And in they walked, for the practice session first. Roger Federer appeared from the players’ tunnel, wearing his Uniqlo black shirt and shorts, a white headband and white Nike shoes bearing the ‘RF’ logo.
Next to the 20-time Grand Slam men’s singles champion was his mother, Lynette Federer, in a distinct green top and black pants.
Shortly, Rafael Nadal, the ‘Spanish Bull’, the world number two in men’s singles tennis, made his grand entry on to the hard court sporting pink and white Nike shoes with the word ‘Rafa’ written on them, a pink Nike shirt, and a white Nike baseball cap with his trademark ‘bull’ logo.
And the two players gave the crowd a taste of what they would see later on in the day: world-class tennis.
Earlier, Lynette, who hails from Kempton Park, a small town in the East Rand of Gauteng in South Africa, had spoken to FORBES AFRICA about the legacy she thinks Federer and Nadal are leaving for the next generation, in particular those in South Africa.
“I really do hope that it leaves a certain message because South Africans are known to be passionate sportsmen. I do hope that tennis can pick up once again as it has been – South Africa was once upon a time a big tennis nation – and that it maybe does inspire more children to play the sport and that would be marvelous because that’s one part of the message we would like to leave. But the main message is that we’re also here to help the children of southern Africa.”
Lynette is on the board of the Roger Federer Foundation that has managed to uplift the lives of over a million children in southern Africa.
In June 2019, tennis fans in South Africa couldn’t contain their excitement when Federer had disclosed in Vogue’s highly-popular video feature, 73 Questions, that his greatest rival, the 19-time Grand Slam champion Nadal, was going to help him again for the Roger Federer Foundation.
“We’re going to try to break the record for most attendance, in Cape Town, South Africa, for my foundation… I’m so looking forward to it, so thank you Rafa,” Federer had said.
This was the sixth edition of the match, but the first to be played on African soil.
The previous day, Federer had taken to Instagram, posting a video saying “hello everybody, I’m in Cape Town, I just got to the tennis court or football stadium, have a look, it’s amazing,” as he panned the camera for a full view of the stadium. “And we have got the orange color for Rafa so he feels like he’s on clay but it’s hard court.”
Federer was referring to Nadal being dubbed the ‘king of clay’ for winning 12 of his 19 Grand Slam titles on the orange clay courts of Roland Garros (French Open) in Paris.
The media stood on the courtside as the champions displayed some of their famous moves. Federer’s dad, Robert, was also present.
The mood in the stadium was beginning to get ecstatic.
The ‘Swiss Maestro’ and ‘Spanish Bull’ are undoubtedly the biggest rivals the sport has ever seen.
Yet, despite their fierce on-court rivalry, the two have managed to form a close friendship off-court.
More importantly, they have managed to inspire fans from all walks of life in different parts of the world.
And South Africa was no exception.
In the audience, a middle-aged woman named Sylna, dressed like Federer, gushed: “The moment is just too big because you don’t know what to expect and you have all these images that [Federer and Nadal] are going to shake your hands and you’re going to pass out.”
Theresa, another woman dressed as Nadal, sporting the player’s signature pink headband, enthused: “It’s actually long overdue that we’ve had some nice international tennis players in South Africa and it’s for a good cause as well.”
Jim, a 63-year-old tennis fanatic from Stellenbosch, originally from Zimbabwe, said he paid a fortune to witness this moment. “The fact that [Federer and Nadal] have been able to maintain their stature, physicality and competitiveness is absolutely amazing. You can have a good day but they have had a good 20 years of playing tennis. It’s just their spirit… Tonight is a good night to forget about all the bad things and concentrate on the good things because there’s a lot of good things in South Africa.”
One of the most rapturous moments on that packed night was when the ‘Mexican Wave’ was achieved in a metachronal rhythm by fans, and captured by thousands on their phones.
And then the world’s second richest man staged an entry.
Bill Gates appeared from the players’ tunnel with his doubles partner Federer, in matching outfits. Federer now swapped his Uniqlo black shirt and shorts for a white shirt and green shorts. He also decided to exchange the white headband for a green one. Gates opted not to wear the headband but had his glasses on.
READ MORE | The Highest-Paid Tennis Players 2019: Roger Federer Scores A Record $93 Million
Shortly afterwards, Nadal and South Africa’s very own Trevor Noah too appeared from the players’ tunnel in matching outfits to screaming fans and a thunderous applause. They wore pink Nike jackets featuring Nadal’s bull logo, pink shirts, pink and white shoes, and white shorts. Noah walked on to the court with the confidence of a multiple Grand Slam winner.
“I feel incredibly excited. So happy! I spent a lot of my childhood here. It’s been 20 years since my last time to Cape Town. It was worth the wait. I didn’t expect this kind of a welcome,” said Federer to SuperSport even as fans held up signs that said ‘welcome home Roger’.
He said some of the best things he experienced coming back to South Africa were the food and lifestyle. “It’s a beautiful country. It’s so scenic. The safaris, and you name it. The people at the end of the day have the warmest hearts. It’s a wonderful place.”
On playing Noah for the first time, he said: “I have never seen him play tennis in my life so that’s a good advantage for him but I’m not sure how good he is. But he’s got the best partner he could find in Rafa so it’s going to be very special. Trevor is a great guy, great person, so funny as well, and I think that could throw us off a little bit. And Rafa, obviously the legend he is, we know how great he is.”
“Play aggressive and very well, that’s the most clear way to success.
The Swiss maestro then went on to tell the crowd: “I hope you all have a blast. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you!”
Gates had previously played in a doubles team for two ‘The Match For Africa’ tournaments prior to ‘The Match In Africa’ finale. Together with Federer, they called themselves ‘Gateserer’, and were unbeaten.
On teaming up with Federer for the third time, Gates said: “We’ve had a lot of fun. The events have been a blast to do. And they’ve raised great resources for his foundation so it’s a thrill to be here; the biggest crowd ever!”
And Nadal, on being back on South African soil, said: “It’s amazing. I’ve never played and felt like this… Just thank you everybody for supporting this.”
The crowds cheered louder.
“It’s very very special. We’re here supporting Roger’s foundation event. It makes me super happy.”
Noah nodded profusely.
“We’re going to create good team work for sure. No doubt,” said Nadal. “I said to Trevor the strategy is clear. Play aggressive and very well, that’s the most clear way to have success.”
Ten years ago, who would have thought that a young man from Soweto, a township in South Africa, would be playing tennis with two of the world’s greatest male tennis players, and also tech-billionaire and Microsoft founder Gates?
“We’ve got a strong strategy. I think Roger’s at a disadvantage. We’re both half Swiss, half South African, so I’m in his head. I know what he’s going to do. I won’t use it too much against him. I’ve got one of the greatest players that the world has ever seen next to me so we’re going to make it a good match. It’s going to be a really good match,” said Noah.
He said playing alongside Nadal was a great combination because “the World Cup 2010 was in South Africa. Spain won that World Cup. So we’ve got a special connection right here. We’re bringing that magic back today.”
Noah brought his trademark humor to the court but that wasn’t enough to pull an upset despite having Nadal on his team. Team ‘Gateserer’ beat Team ‘N-Squared’ 6-3 to hold onto their unbeaten streak. Federer said on Noah’s tennis game: “I couldn’t even see the feet, they were so fast.”
Before the players headed back into the locker rooms, Gates spoke about the work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing in Africa. “A lot of the work we do in South Africa is to help fight HIV and tuberculosis. And so, going and meeting the doctors, seeing the patients and understanding the drugs; how we can make them better. It’s inspiring to see the people who do the work in the field. Things have improved in those areas but there’s a lot more to do.”
Preluding the main match of the night, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, a South African singing group that recently appeared on America’s Got Talent, performed Shakira’s foot-tapping Waka Waka song.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The players once again appeared from the players’ tunnel, returning to court and a frenzied crowd.
Spotted in the front-row were South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe and his fashion entrepreneur wife Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, as also the country’s rugby legend Brian Habana.
Federer spoke about Nadal trailing behind him for the record of the most Grand Slam wins.
“The good thing about tonight is that he cannot catch me. Tonight, I’m relaxed.” Federer further said he wouldn’t mind if Nadal caught up with him, however, he would like to win one more Wimbledon title.
Siya Kolisi, the first black captain of the South African rugby team, which won the Rugby World Cup late last year, also made a special appearance. He came on court bearing a gift for the rugby team’s special fan, Federer. From one champion to another, Kolisi handed over a Number 8 green Springboks jersey with Federer’s surname written on it to symbolize his South African roots.
Federer wore it and the two champions hugged.
“Thank you to all of you beautiful people of South Africa. We appreciate everything you do. Roger has been telling me how amazing it’s been since he’s come back here. It just shows how many great things we can achieve as a country; for these two gentlemen to come out here and want to play in South Africa is really an awesome thing. And I hope it inspires a lot of people to come here and do this because we’ve got beautiful facilities like these and we can fill up the stadium which is amazing,” said Kolisi to SuperSport.
In the end, tennis fans were treated to a thrilling match that saw Federer hitting his famous backhand, a shot that has been instrumental in his career. He won the first set by 6-4. Nadal didn’t hold back either. He unleashed his lethal curling forehand shot on Federer as if it was one of the many ‘Fedal’ Grand Slam final classics that tennis fans have witnessed over the years. Nadal managed to scoop the second set 6-3. In the final set, he made some errors that ushered Federer’s victory, as he won the match by 6-4 3-6 6-3. The two hugged it out by the net.
‘The Match In Africa’ raised $3.5 million, the highest amount the Roger Federer Foundation has ever netted from a single exhibition match. The proceeds will help support children’s education in Africa as the exhibition is all about empowering children, in particular, in the area of early childhood education. The event also set a world record for the most attendees at a single tennis match.
So the numbers beg the question: is South Africa ready for a tennis Grand Slam, or at the very least, ready to be added on to the calendars of the ATP and WTA tours?
At least on this night, it was clear South Africans love sport. Maybe the game has only just begun.
What Federer Thought Nadal Must Do In South Africa
“I think Rafa has to go to Table Mountain, and then also of course to the Cape of Good Hope, maybe some of the vineyards, and Bo-Kaap – I went there this morning… I think [this trip] is going to make him want to come back to have a proper time with his wife and maybe his kids, in the future, and really travel South Africa and Africa extensively. He came here for the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals when Spain played at Soccer City in Johannesburg so he’s got a little taste here already and I think this one is definitely going to motivate him for many more returns,” said Federer to FORBES AFRICA.