Andy Murray has urged fans to appreciate Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer while they still can as the two tennis greats continue on their roads to recovery from long-term injuries.
Murray played against Nadal for the first time in five-and-a-half years on Friday night when the pair clashed in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship semi-finals in Abu Dhabi. The British former world No 1, who has spent the past two years working his way back from a career-threatening hip injury, claimed a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Nadal in the Spaniard's first match since August.
Nadal, 35, cut short his 2021 season during the summer due to a foot injury that he admitted had been troubling him for more than a year. The 20-time Grand Slam champion's extraordinary career has been consistently disrupted by various fitness issues, while 40-year-old Federer, also on 20 majors, recently underwent his third knee surgery in 18 months and revealed he does not expect to return to the tour until the middle of next year.
Despite their lengthy absences from the circuit this year, Nadal and Federer remain among the most popular and highly-respected athletes in professional tennis. Nadal was on Friday named the winner of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the fourth straight year, voted for by his fellow professionals, while in a clear sign of his enduring popularity, Federer was voted the Fans’ Favourite for a 19th consecutive year.
"I've always said how much I loved watching Rafa on the court. He’s a brilliant role model, not just for other players to watch and look up to, but anyone who is in the public eye," Murray, 34, said after his win over Nadal in Abu Dhabi.
"Both him and Roger handle themselves so well on the court and they’ve set such a high bar that it’s going to be difficult for any players to live up to them.
"They're both big personalities, contrasting personalities as well, and they have helped take the sport to another level.
"When they finish it will be a tough moment for tennis. It will recover, but it wont be easy to replace both guys and all tennis fans need to appreciate them while they playing because it won’t go on forever."
On winning the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, Nadal said: It’s always a great feeling, because its voted by my colleagues on the tour and no one knows me better.
"We players share a lot of moments on the court and in the locker room, so to be voted for this sportsmanship award again means a lot to me. I always work hard and give my best to conduct myself on and off the court, try to be nice to everyone, and play in the right spirit of competition, so this award always means a lot to me."
After wins over compatriot Dan Evans and Nadal, three-time Grand Slam champion Murray has shown encouraging form at MWTC, but arguably his biggest test awaits in Saturday's final, where he faces Russia's world No 5 Andrey Rublev.
Nadal, meanwhile, will take on Canadian world No 14 Denis Shapovalov in the third-place playoff.