There was a time when the mere presence of Rod Laver on center court at Melbourne Park drove Roger Federer to tears.
On Wednesday, at a fundraising event billed as "An evening with Roger Federer and friends," the 17-time major winner finally got to find out what it's like to have a few rallies against the man who twice completed the Grand Slam. (Click here for pictures)
Laver, 75, strolled onto the court named in his honor in shorts and vest, and had a hit against the 32-year-old Federer, who is preparing for next week's Australian Open. He played some solid forehands but decided to move closer in to volley after netting a few backhands. And he got a standing ovation from the 14,000-strong crowd at Rod Laver Arena for his efforts.
"He told me that his wrist was hurting less on the forehand so he asked me to play there a bit more often!" Federer joked later.
Laver stayed to watch Federer beat 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5 in the main exhibition match. Organizers announced more than $1 million was raised before and during the event, an idea which Federer pitched to mark the 10 years since he first moved to No. 1, won the first of his four Australian Open titles and started his foundation.
"Hitting with Rod Laver for me clearly is an absolute dream come true. It's in his arena as well, it's named after him and he deserves it so much," Federer said. "While I was playing my racket was feeling extremely heavy. That means I was very nervous, which I really was."
Federer burst into tears after receiving the Australian Open winner's trophy from Laver in 2006, and speaks with reverence about the Australian great.
"What an honor it was for me," Federer said. "And I'm very thankful that he was willing to do something like this because it's not normal in any way and that's why I really appreciate it."
The left-handed Laver, who won the Grand Slam in 1962 and in 1969, was among the big Australian names helping Federer raise money for his foundation, which helps educate children in southern Africa. Lleyton Hewitt, who beat Federer in the final of the Brisbane International last Sunday and has been playing against the Swiss star on tour since 1999, was part of the on court formalities.
Pat Rafter helped with the warmup and Tony Roche, who has worked with Federer and Hewitt, was on hand to give Tsonga some pointers in the match.
Federer said the concept could happen more often, and likened it to pro-ams in golf as a way of enhancing the profile of tennis.
"The Australian Open showed that they were so open-minded," he said. "They didn't shy away, they weren't scared that their ticket sales would drop because of an event like this - who knows, it might actually be better for them."
Federer dropped to No. 6 in the rankings last season after failing to reach the final of any major for the first time since 2002. He has since hired Stefan Edberg as a coaching consultant, did extra fitness work in the offseason and said the two-hour match against Tsonga was ideal preparation on the back of playing singles and doubles in Brisbane last week for the season's first Grand Slam tournament.