LONDON – Of course, this day, this game, had to come Roger Federer and for tennis, as it inevitably has to be for every athlete in every sport.
Federer said goodbye on Friday night with one last competition before retiring at the age of 41 after a superlative career of 20 Grand Slam titles and a statesman’s role. He ended his days as a professional player in a 4-6, 7-6(2), 11-9 loss in doubles alongside his longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and jack sock the team world.
The winners, the stats and the score didn’t matter and were all so utterly irrelevant. In the end it was all about saying goodbye. Or rather the farewells: Federer from tennis, from the fans, from his competitors and colleagues. And of course the farewell of each of these units from Federer.
“It was a perfect trip,” said Federer. “I would do it again and again.”
When the match ended, and with it his time in professional tennis, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer started crying. As cascades of claps and cries of affection erupted from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. He then mouthed, “Thank you,” while applauding directly back to the audience, who had been chanting, “Let’s go Roger! Let’s go!” in the closing moments of a match that lasted more than two hours and ended at around 12:30 am
The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day team event set up by his management company would be his last event before retirement and then clarified that the doubles game would be his last match. His surgically repaired right knee – the latest of three surgeries, came shortly after a defeat in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in July 2021, which will go down in history as his last official singles match – is in no shape to allow him to continue.
“For me personally [it was] sad at first moment when I came to the conclusion that it’s the best decision,” Federer said of his emotions in an interview with The Associated Press this week as he realized it was time to leave. “I got it first somehow held back, then parried. But I could feel the pain.”
A few hours before Friday’s game, Federer tweeted: “I’ve done this thousands of times but this one feels different. Thanks everyone for coming tonight.”
He had said he wanted this to feel more like a party than a funeral and the crowd complied, rising to a loud and prolonged standing ovation as Federer and Nadal – each wearing a white headscarf, a blue shirt and white shorts – emerged together from a tunnel leading to the Black Court for the final match of Day 1 at the O2 Arena. Spectators stayed on their feet for almost 10 minutes during the pre-game warm-up, holding up cell phone cameras to capture the moment.
They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, some with homemade signs, and they made themselves known with a baffle as Federer delivered a forehand volley winner on the second point of the game. Similar reactions came only to the chair umpire’s announcement before the third game of “Roger Federer to serve” and again when he ended that game with a 117-mile serve winner.
The doubles, of course, requires a lot less movement and space coverage, so Friday’s stress on his knee was limited. Federer did show traces of his old flair and, as expected, rust.
With his parents and wife sitting in the front row behind a baseline, a couple of early forehands sailed several feet too long. There was also a forehand that slipped right between Sock and Tiafoe that seemed too good to be true – and, as it turns out, it was: the ball traveled through a gap under the netting tape and that’s how Federer and Nadal got the point taken away .
Despite being essentially a glorified show, all four doubles contestants played like they wanted to win. That was clear when Sock jumped and screamed after a particularly great volley or when Tiafoe sent a few shots straight at Federer and Nadal.
But circumstances allowed for moments of hilarity.
Federer and Nadal were able to laugh after some confusion over who should go for the ball when a point is lost. After Nadal somehow flicked a back-to-the-net shot around the post that just missed goal, Tiafoe crossed the hand to congratulate him on the performance.
In the opening set, the two greats of the game couldn’t quite understand each other between the points, so Federer trotted off the net back to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pointed to his ear to signal fans what the problem was .
Before Federer, the men’s brand for most major tennis championships was 14 by Pete Sampras. Federer overcame that and amassed eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open and one at the French Open, setting a new standard that Nadal, now at 22, and Novak Djokovicat 21, equaled, then surpassed, as part of a golden era for the sport.
Federer’s impressive resume includes 310 weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a Davis Cup title and Olympic medals. Aside from his elegance and effectiveness in handling a racquet, his personality made Federer an ambassador for tennis, someone whose immense popularity helped attract fans.
Certainly there are those who would have found it particularly fitting for Federer to come across the net ahead of Nadal, who is often a nemesis on the pitch but eventually a friend off the pitch. Perhaps it could have taken place around 15 miles away at the All England Club’s Center Court, or at Court Philippe Chatrier in Roland Garros, at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park, or even at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the heart of the US Open, the only Grand -Slam tournament in which they somehow never faced each other.
Perhaps they could have offered everyone one final episode of a head-to-head match as memorable as any in the long history of their sport – or indeed any.
Roger vs Rafa – only one name required per piece – belongs up there with McEnroe vs Borg (as it happens, the two captains of the Laver Cup team, John and Bjorn), Evert vs Navratilova, Sampras vs. Agassi, Ali vs Frazier, Magic vs Bird, Brady vs Manning and so on.
Over the years, in their 40 games, 14 in Grand Slam tournaments, nine in Major finals, Federer and Nadal have displayed individual greatness and compelling contrasts: right-hander vs left-hander, attacker vs grinder, seeming ease vs unrelenting intensity.
And yet there was an unmistakable element of poetry in these two men, who challenged and exalted one another by acting as partners, clapping palms and smiling.
“Two of the ‘GOATs’ play together,” Sock said, using the popular acronym for “Greatest of All-Time.”
That departure follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the US Open three weeks ago following a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she have dominated and surpassed for decades.
One key difference: every time Williams went to court in New York, the question was how long her stay would last — a “win or that’s it” prospect. Friday WAS it for Federer no matter the result.
“All the players will miss him,” he said Kasper Ruudwho beat Sock 6:4, 5:7, 10:7 in singles.
The other results that separated Team Europe and Team World 2-2: Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 in a match briefly interrupted when an environmental protester set fire to part of the court and his own arm and Alex de Minaur passed Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7.
To start playing shortly after Murray’s defeat ended, Federer and Nadal first gave him some coaching tips and then watched part of it on TV together in a room in the arena, waiting for their turn. With Federer and Nadal in action, it was Djokovic’s turn to offer strategic advice.
The final hooray came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 singles match wins for Federer, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era that began in 1968.
At the peak of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals from 2005-2007, winning eight. Extend that to 2010, and he reached 18 out of 19 major finals.
More than those numbers, people will remember the powerful forehand, one-handed backhand, flawless footwork, spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part of who he is – remember most proudly — unusual longevity.
“I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger,” Tiafoe said. “The way he played and the grace with which he did it and who he is as an individual.”