Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – a group of the three greatest men’s tennis players of all time and the four defining contenders of the generation – sat tight together at their Laver Cup press conference on Thursday as they all came together for the last time as professionals.
As they recalled their old games and laughed at shared memories, glorious or devastating depending on your perspective, Federer interjected: “Sitting here, it feels good that I’m going from the boys first,” he said, smiling. “It just feels right.”
In many ways, this final chapter of Federer’s career is murky. Despite his reputation for avoiding serious injury during his career, his final years were plagued by physical problems. Unlike Serena Williams’ recent intense, competitive exit, Federer can’t trust his knee to last more than a brief doubles match. In his final battle with Team Europe teammate Nadal, he will face Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock at the O2 Arena on Friday night, hoping to compete at a respectable level.
But the circumstances are right. He bids farewell to three of the toughest opponents of his life, players who have helped him define and advance tennis in so many ways over the last decade and a half. Together they have won 66 Grand Slam titles, competed 234 times and spent 933 weeks at No. 1. For over a decade, they’ve packed the later stages of every major event, preventing almost everyone else from succeeding.
“Tomorrow will be something special,” said Nadal. “I think very difficult, difficult. Coping with everything will no doubt be difficult, especially for Roger. For me too. In the end, one of the most important players, if not the most important player, of my tennis career is going, isn’t it?”
Federer came first and at 41 he will go in that order. Five years older than Nadal, 36, he raised the bar to the sky and won his first Grand Slam title in 2003. exercise its dominance and force everyone else to catch up. Nadal followed, a juvenile supernova that first established itself on clay and then gradually caught up elsewhere.
Just as they had established a two-part rivalry, their games and personalities sharply opposed, the now 35-year-old Djokovic broke through the seemingly impenetrable barrier they had erected and marked themselves as equals. While Murray, 35, can’t quite keep up with the Big Three, for years he was the only other player to consistently face them in the biggest events.
Over time, they pushed each other, forcing the others to take their games to greater heights. They’ve played some of the greatest matches ever and they’ve broken each other’s hearts constantly.
In addition to the clear respect, there were of course also many moments of tension.
Now they will play out the final moments of Federer’s career on the same side of the pitch. “We will do our best to contribute to the team and a good performance, but at the same time admire and celebrate his career because he deserved it in a great way,” Djokovic said.