MELBOURNE, Australia — Roger and Rafa were behaving like best mates on Rod Laver Arena — high-fiving, hugging, shaking hands and laughing at each other’s jokes on the eve of the Australian Open.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had time for fun at the “Rally for Relief” to raise money for victims of the fatal floods in Australia’s northeastern Queensland state. It’ll be a completely different story if they’re back on the same court two weeks from Sunday.
Federer is the defending champion. Nadal has won the three Grand Slam titles since and is aiming to become the first man since Laver in 1969 to win four straight majors. It’s being dubbed the “Rafa Slam.”
The pair played on opposite sides of the net, and then played together against Kim Clijsters and Sam Stosur in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000 that paid to watch a host of tennis stars in the fundraiser. Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick wore microphones and joked with the crowd, playing alongside and against the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka in the celebrity hit-and-giggle exhibition.
Neither Federer nor Nadal wore microphones when they played a little later. It was mostly smiles, but there were glimpses of competitive intensity when they faced each other in mixed doubles.
At one point, 16-time Grand Slam winner Federer used his court craft to bring Nadal to the net and then beat him with a backhand passing shot. The muscular Spaniard replied on the next point, leaping high and smashing an overhead winner beyond Federer’s reach. After each of those winners, the two smiled broadly at each other.
Nadal also hammered a forehand down the line on the last point of their singles mini-match and then, shaking hands and laughing, the two standout players in men’s tennis joined forces against U.S. Open champion Clijsters and French Open finalist Stosur — Australia’s best hope in the women’s draw.
Around their exhibition Sunday, Federer said Nadal has “been playing incredible.”
“An incredible run through the French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open — it was incredible to see. Then obviously it’s hard to maintain. But he’s going to be for sure ready for this,” Federer said. “I’ll follow it very closely. If I get a chance, I hope I can stop him.”
The first major of the year gets underway Monday with 2008 women’s champion Maria Sharapova playing Thailand’s Tamarine Tanasugarn in the opening match on center court, followed by No. 1 Wozniacki against Gisela Dulko of Argentina and Federer playing Lukas Lacko of Slovakia.
Third-seeded Djokovic, the 2008 champion, plays Spaniard Marcel Granollers in the main night match on Rod Laver Arena.
Andy Roddick plays Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic on the second showcourt. Following Roddick on Hisense Arena will be fourth-seeded Venus Williams against Italy’s Sara Errani, and seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin against Indian qualifier Sania Mirza.
With Serena Williams unable to defend her title because of her injured foot, Clijsters is considered a favorite at Melbourne Park.
She faces a challenging opening match Tuesday against former No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina, who slumped in the rankings last year due to a back injury and hasn’t reached a Grand Slam final since consecutive defeats in championship matches at Melbourne and Paris in 2009.
Clijsters, a three-time U.S. Open champion, has played down talk about favorites.
“I really don’t want to waste too much energy on what’s happening on other parts of the draw or what’s being said around us,” she said Sunday.
Wozniacki, who has a difficult opening match against Dulko, didn’t think she was handicapped in any way by never having won a major.
“I’ve got great results, you don’t become No. 1 by winning small tournaments,” said the 20-year-old Danish player, who has won six of her 12 career WTA singles titles in 2010. “I don’t have to prove anything.”
She was as relaxed as she could be on Sunday, when the players combined to help raise more than 1.8 million Australian dollars for the flood victims through ticket sales and donations.
Nadal withdrew from his quarterfinal here last year to Murray, who went on to lose the final to Federer. He won’t be in action until Tuesday, when he starts his campaign for the Rafa Slam against Marcos Daniel of Brazil.
Laver, who won on grass at the Australian and U.S. Opens and at Wimbledon and on clay at the French 41 years ago, still believes the true Grand Slam can only be achieved in a calendar year.
Federer, who has twice won three consecutive majors but been blocked by Nadal from holding all four, has conceded his main rival deserves to be the favorite at Melbourne Park.
“Look, I think it’s unbelievable what Rafa’s been able to do. That in some ways makes him the favorite for this tournament,” Federer said on the weekend.
“No, for sure, No!” Nadal responded. “I for sure am feeling less favorite than (Federer) — and not more favorite than Djokovic, (Andy) Murray, (Robin) Soderling, these kind of players.”
Nadal said the dominance he and Federer have enjoyed in the last five years has been phenomenal, but he’s always wary of what could happen next.
“I don’t know how many tournaments, but in more than 20 Grand Slams, only two or three players won. I think that’s impossible to continue like this,” he said.