Roger Federer lowered the curtain on his illustrious career in an emotionally charged Friday night session at London’s O2 Arena, finishing his last match at 25 minutes past midnight and leaving the court just before 1am amid a sea of love, tears and music capacity quantity.
The fairytale ending of a win in his last match was an agonizingly untrue, Federer and his great friend and rival Rafael Nadal failing to convert a match point before losing a double on the razor’s edge to Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe 4-6, 7-6 (2) 11-9.
The result leaves the 2022 Laver Cup 2-2 at the end of the opening day, with plenty of scope for drama over the weekend. But Friday’s story was all about Federer and the final chapter of a career that marks him out as one of the greatest athletes in the history of the sport, not just tennis.
Entering the arena just after 10pm following two and a half hour singles between Andy Murray and Alex de Minaur, he received a standing ovation and as if to emphasize the enormity of the occasion, Tiafoe shook hands with Federer after the coin toss. It ended two and a half hours later with Sock flat-footed Nadal with a forehand up the alley, but from then on the American pair took a backseat as the show was owned by Federer.
He struggled through a tearful interview with Jim Courier in court, though he insisted: “It’s been a wonderful day – I’m happy, not sad. I enjoyed tying my shoes again, knowing that whatever I did would be for the last time. I was afraid something would go wrong – my calf would walk or my back would lock – but I got through it.”
As the 17,000-seat arena filled to capacity and the clock ticked past midnight, Federer was serenaded in retirement by pop singer Ellie Goulding, who sang “Still falling for you” and “Fire and Ice.”
The match itself was the perfect way out for Federer. Yes, a win would have been the icing on the cake, but everything was there for him to leave with a touch of the brilliance he has come to be known and loved for, but with enough for everyone to see that his time really was up is.
His game was still there. He was regularly serving over 125 mph, his groundstrokes were good (although some forehands landed well over their target), his reflexes were good enough to throw in some crisp volleys, and his positioning was textbook.
The only thing missing was his movement. He never served-and-volleyed, struggled to run down short volleys and long balls, and rarely intercepted at the net. That left Nadal with the lion’s share of the work and the fact that the legendary pair got match point was largely thanks to Nadal’s willingness to run for anything (and who knows how fit Nadal really is?). With a chronic knee injury, it’s clear that singles is now a step too far for even a marksman as accomplished as Federer.
His great technique, great hands and tennis brain allowed him to beat the limited mobility and it almost worked. Three times he and Nadal were two points away from victory – at 5-4 and 6-5 in the second set and 8-8 in the match tie-break – and they came within a point of victory at 9-8. But Federer scored a reflex forehand and then conceded his next serve point before Sock finished the job after two hours and 14 minutes of absorbing play.
The match even featured an addendum to the Federer showreel. In the third game, he pulled down the line for a forehand and threaded it through the tiny gap between the net post and the net. As the ball went under the tape and grazed the net, the point went to Team World, but few will worry about that – by the end, Federer showed he had the ability to leave crowds in awe at his skills.
The half hour after the match was an open Federer celebration. Both sides congratulated him twice, he tearfully fought his way through his interview with Courier and paid tribute to his family, particularly his wife Mirka, who he said “let me play when she could so easily have stopped”. As Goulding sang “Fire and Ice,” Federer hugged Mirka, his four children and his parents before completing a lap of honor through a still nearly full stadium as the clock ticked at around 1am.
“It feels like a celebration,” he told the crowd, “that’s how I wanted it to be, so thanks.” It was a perfect trip, I would do it again.” Most people in the tennis world would love to see it again.