Roger Federer paid tribute to long-time rival and friend Rafael Nadal after winning the sportsman and comeback of the year awards at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco on Tuesday (27 February).
The Swiss ace came back from a six-month injury layoff in 2016 to win seven titles including the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles in 2017 and end the year as the world number two. This saw him beat fellow nominees Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo and British trio Lewis Hamilton, Mo Farah and Chris Froome to the sportsman of the year title.
The Spaniard was a contender as he too came back from injury struggles in 2016 to win six titles including two Grand Slams – the French and the US Open – to finish 2017 as the world number one. Federer believes that he would also be deserving if he had won the awards instead of the 20-time men's singles Grand Slam champion.
"To my rival Rafa, I wanted to just give a shoutout to him. He had an unbelievable year himself. We had a great battle and it's because of a guy like him, I feel like I've become a better player as well," Federer said, as quoted by ESPN.
"He could very well be here as well and standing here with this award. He's an incredible player, incredible friend, an incredible athlete," he added.
Federer and Nadal's rivalry has spanned 14 years with their first meeting coming at the 2004 Miami Open. They have since faced each other 38 times with the latter holding a 23-15 head-to-head advantage.
The duo have dominated the men's singles game for over a decade and share a combined 36 Grand Slam titles between them. They have also provided many a memorable encounter in ATP finals and major tournaments, and Federer believes that it helps create a bond between players in the long run.
"All the matches that you've played against one another, they sort of connect you to some extent."
"When you lose against a guy 9-7 in the fifth [set] or you win 9-7 in the fifth, it leaves something special there for everyone," Federer explained talking about the 2008 Wimbledon final when he lost to Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set.
"Whenever you walk past a guy, you know there was a match that really shaped your character maybe as well."