They have been friends for close to 30 years. Juan Sebastian Cabal still laughs at the way Robert Farah wore his cap as a 10-year-old on a match court, and still does: slightly tilted — never straight.
But this week, at the Nitto ATP Finals, 12 months on from their debut at the season finale, the Colombians will knuckle down to business in their quest to lift a sixth trophy of 2019.
Over the past six months, Cabal and Farah have come up with a winning formula, centred on hard work: good coaching and tactical preparation. By taking each tournament one match at a time they have compiled a 49-16 record on the season.
“I would say Eastbourne was a big change, our first title on grass in our first grass final,” Cabal told ATPTour.com. “We never played that well on grass and that tournament is really hard to win. That gave us the belief that we were doing everything right. Our form clicked and it was an amazing second half of the year.”
Having retained the Internazionali BNL d’Italia crown in May, the Colombians hit the grass — a surface they’ve traditionally struggled on — and landed the oldest trophy of all, The Championships at Wimbledon (d. Mahut/Roger-Vasselin), to add to the Nature Valley International crown in Eastbourne (d. Gonzalez/Zeballos). On 15 July, they became co-No. 1s.
A runner-up finish in their fifth ATP Masters 1000 final, at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati (l. to Dodig/Polasek), preceded their second Grand Slam championship trophy at the US Open (d. Granollers/Zeballos) in September.
“The challenges are always changing,” Farah told ATPTour.com. “We try to pursue and conquer those challenges together. I think that keeps our partnership fresh. When you win a Slam, it’s let’s win another, you win a second, so let’s go for three and so on. Then there is no limit. There is always another challenge and motivation.”
Cabal says, “Our lives changed big time winning Wimbledon. Not in the way of living, but the way people perceived us. Asking us for a photo, or showing us love, what we’ve done for our country and tennis. I’m delighted to receive that kind of support. That’s the biggest change. It’s amazing, that people are looking forward to your matches and supporting you.”
On the eve of the Nitto ATP Finals Cabal and Farah will compete once more in London with an aura that has been richly deserved, founded on years of hard work through every level of professional tennis. Professional pride will be at stake, having already wrapped up year-end No. 1 in the ATP Doubles Team Rankings on 9 October.
“For me, the tournament is really well done,” said Farah, ahead of their second appearance in London. “The ATP do a great job and they spoil us. The stadium is very special, how big and unique the court is. If the court is almost full or full, then it’s a special place to show your potential.”
“It’s a lot of pressure this week, but we’re taking it moment by moment and dealing with things that you can control,” says Cabal. “Thinking ahead is not good in our sport. You cannot think about the final, without winning the first round. We’re focused on working hard and preparing well for the first match, then giving 100 per cent.
“We are year-end No. 1s already, and it’s a relief to have achieved it, but right now we’re focusing on Monday. We’re not thinking about points, but winning on Monday.”
Cabal and Farah will open their Nitto ATP Finals campaigns in Group Max Mirnyi on Monday evening against seventh-seeded Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, winners of the career Grand Slam with the Australian Open in January.
Expert Analysis: Max Mirnyi, former World No. 1 & two-time Nitto ATP Finals champion
« I’ve always liked the fact that you’re committed to one partner and the longer you stay with that partner, the longer you can also develop your winning strategy. But the fact that everybody is switching very frequently nowadays plays into the hands of a team like Cabal and Farah. They’re only strengthening as a team and often you see guys switching around.
« It’s also challenging for a fresh team to be able to have to oppose a team as dominant as Cabal/Farah. I have been a very big fan of Juan Sebastian and Robert for many years because they’ve shown a tremendous commitment over the years, I’ve known them for a very long time. We’ve spent many training camps together in Florida. They’ve gone to the IMG Academy in Florida many times.
“I’ve always seen and I kind of put them a little bit aside from everybody else because right before, it’s only these couple years that they’ve kind of hit their stride and started winning the big titles and got to the top of the rankings. But for many years they’ve worked with a doubles coach, they’ve had a fitness coach and they were doing what it takes to be good in our sport and I was just waiting and anticipating when that success would come their way so the extent that it did this year.
“I’m actually very happy to see them at the top of the ATP Doubles Rankings. I think this is what the new and upcoming players need to see and realise, that commitment is probably the biggest asset you have, whether you’re playing singles or doubles, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to do the right things and the Colombians are definitely setting that example of how doubles needs to be addressed and they definitely deserve every bit of the glory they’re getting now.”