It was a moment in time, as brief as half a second, that captured the intensity of the relationship and rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Standing courtside with her camera at the ready, photographer Ella Ling expected Federer’s farewell to tennis to be fraught with emotion, but when the moment came, she was overcome by tears and adulation. surprise.
Across from her at London’s O2 Arena were Federer and Nadal, the Swiss star’s long-time friend and rival, sitting hand-in-hand as they sobbed uncontrollably.
As the scene unfolded after Federer’s final match, Ling started clicking away on his camera and hoped for the best.
“It was only when I went back to the computer and downloaded everything that I found that shot and thought, ‘Wow, this is the one I want to share with everyone,'” Ling, who follows the men’s and women’s tennis tours in the around the world, he told CNN Sport.
The image in question – a photo of Federer’s hand on Nadal’s as Ellie Goulding performs “Still Falling For You” during the Laver Cup – has attracted widespread attention, capturing a scene unlike any other Ling has ever witnessed in a tennis court.
“I just wanted to capture an image that really summed up the feeling of the night, but also a moment in history that goes [Federer] He is finally playing his last game and has retired,” he adds.
“I would have loved to have an iconic image, but I never imagined I would have one.”
The Laver Cup provided an opportunity to pay tribute to Federer’s brilliant tennis career, although the results did not go in his favor.
Playing alongside Nadal, he lost his doubles match against Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe on the first day of the tournament, then was sidelined for the next two days as Team Europe fell 13 -8 against the world team.
But the images that will likely come to define Federer’s swan song are of him and Nadal, rivals for more than 15 years with 42 Grand Slam titles between them, struggling to control their emotions.
“Away from the court, I think they (Federer and Nadal) share very, very similar values and morals,” says Ling.
“They value family a lot, they value respect. Both are very, very stylish. They always win awards for sportsmanship and things like that. I think that’s where they came together.
“But at the same time, I don’t think any of us really understood how close they were. I didn’t realize it until this moment and all night long (when) you could just see how close they were.”
Over the course of their rivalry, Federer and Nadal played 40 times, including nine Grand Slam finals, six of which were won by Nadal. After so many battles on the court, witnessing both players reduced to tears was an amazing sight, according to Ling.
“You have these two masculine men — they’re masculine athletes who … would try not to show any emotion on the court, and you’d rarely see a lot of emotion off the court,” he says.
“For them to be sitting there right now, crying uncontrollably, holding hands in front of 17,000 people there, and millions of others on TV, and being so pure, so raw, so open about it is incredible.
“I think this will do a lot of good for society, as well as seeing that.”
For his part, Federer said that the moment with Nadal was a “secret thank you” and that he hopes to get some of the photos from the Laver Cup.
“I think all the guys – Andy [Murray]Novak [Djokovic] and Rafa too, he saw his careers flash before his eyes, knowing that we’ve all, in a way, been on borrowed time for long enough,” Federer told The New York Times.
“As you get older, you get into your 30s, you start to know what you really appreciate in life, but also in sport.”
“You almost forget you’re still being photographed … because obviously I couldn’t talk and the music was there, I guess I just played it,” Federer added.
Ling says she was well positioned to take the photo of Federer and Nadal, moving away from the television cameras that shielded other photographers from capturing the shot. She hopes it can be remembered for a long time as one of the most iconic photos of tennis, and sports in general.
“That’s the beauty of photography,” says Ling, “you capture those moments and they’re there forever.”