LONDON — This day, this match, had to happen, of course, for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it inevitably must happen for every athlete in every sport.
Federer bid farewell on Friday night with one last contest before retiring at 41 after a stellar career that spanned nearly a quarter century and included 20 Grand Slam titles and a statesmanship. He concluded his days as a professional player with a doubles loss alongside longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.
The truth is, the winners, stats and score (OK, for the record it was 4-6, 7-6(2), 11-9) didn’t matter, and were all so irrelevant .
The occasion was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, farewell, in the plural: Federer to tennis, to fans, to his competitors and colleagues. And, naturally, the farewells of each of these entities to Federer.
“It was a perfect trip,” Federer said. “I would do it all over again.”
At the end of the match and, with it, of his time in professional tennis, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer started crying. There were many tears for everyone; Nadal also wiped his. As a cascade of applause and shouts of affection came from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. Then he mouthed, “Thank you,” while clapping back to the onlookers who had chanted, “Let’s go, Roger!” Let’s go! during the last moments of a match that lasted more than two hours and ended around 12:30 p.m.
His wife, Mirka, their four children – twin girls and twins – and Federer’s parents then joined him on the pitch for hugs and, yes, more hollers. Members of both teams came together to hoist Federer into the air.
“It was a wonderful day. I told the guys I was happy, I’m not sad,” Federer said. “I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time. Everything was the last time.”
The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day tag team event, founded by his management company, would be his final event before retirement, then clarified that the doubles outing would be the final match. His surgically repaired right knee – the last of three surgeries came shortly after a Wimbledon quarter-final loss in July 2021, which will end as his official singles exit – is unable to afford him to continue.
“For me, personally, (it was) sad in the first moment, when I came to the conclusion that it was the best decision,” Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions. when he realized it was time to leave. . “I kind of held it back at first and then I fought it. But I could feel the pain.”
He had said he wanted it to look more like a party than a funeral, and the crowd agreed, rising to a long, long standing ovation when Federer and Nadal, who is 36 – each wearing white bandanas , 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. They stood for almost 10 minutes, throughout the pre-match warm-up, holding phone cameras aloft to capture the moment.
They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, others with homemade signs (“Idol Forever” reads one), and they were heard with a wall of sound when Federer delivered a volley winning forehand on the second point of the match. Similar reactions came simply to the chair umpire’s announcement before game three of “Roger Federer on serve”, and again when he closed that game with a service winner at 117 mph.
“Obviously 99.9% of the crowd was against us. But it was super fun to be a part of that game. I think we’ll be forever grateful to be a part of the final GOAT game,” Sock said, using the acronym for “The Greatest of All Time”.
The double requires much less movement and court coverage, of course, so stress on Federer’s knee was limited on Friday. It showed touches of its old flair, of course, and some rust, as was to be expected.
There were a few early forehands that sailed several feet too long. There was also a forehand that slipped right between Sock and Tiafoe and seemed too good to be true – and, as it turned out, it was: The ball went through a gap under the net tape and so the point went been taken away from Federer and Nadal.
Although this match was essentially a glorified exhibition, all four doubles participants played as if they wanted to win. It was clear when Sock, the 29-year-old three-time major doubles champion, jumped up and screamed after a particularly great volley or when the 24-year-old Tiafoe sent a few shots straight at Federer and Nadal.
But circumstances allowed for moments of levity.
Federer and Nadal got a laugh after some confusion over who should fetch a ball on a point they lost. After Nadal somehow fired a back-to-the-net shot around the post, only for it to barely land wide, US Open semi-finalist Tiafoe crossed to reach out with congratulations for the effort.
In the first set, the older duo couldn’t really get along between the points, so Federer trotted from the net to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pricked his ear to signal what the problem was.
Before Federer started winning Grand Slam titles in 2003, the men’s mark for most major tennis championships was 14 by Pete Sampras. Federer surpassed that, racking up eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open and one at the French Open, setting a new standard than Nadal, now with 22, and Novak Djokovic, with 21, tied, then overtook. , part of a golden age for sport.
Surely there are those who would have found it particularly fitting to see Federer finish through Nadal’s net, often an enemy on the pitch but ultimately a friend off the pitch. Perhaps it could have been about 15 miles away, at Center Court at the All England Club, for example, or Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, or Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park, or even Arthur Ashe Stadium, the centerpiece of the US Open. , the only Grand Slam tournament they have never faced, one way or another.
Perhaps they could have provided each with a final episode of a head-to-head clash as memorable as any in the long history of their sport – or, indeed, any other.
Roger v Rafa – only one name required each – belongs up there with McEnroe v Borg (in this case, the two Laver Cup team captains, John and Bjorn), Evert v Navratilova, Sampras v Agassi, Ali against Frazier, Magic against Bird, Brady against Manning, etc.
Over the years, Federer and Nadal have displayed individual greatness and compelling contrasts in their 40 matches, 14 at Grand Slams, nine in major finals: right-handed against left-handed, striker against crusher, apparent ease against relentless intensity.
And yet, there was an undeniable element of poetry with these two men challenging and elevating each other by playing as partners, slapping palms and sharing smiles.
The farewell follows that of Serena Williams, 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 it has dominated and transcended for decades.
One key difference: Every time Williams appeared in court in New York, the question arose as to how long his stay would be – a ‘win or that’s it’ prospect.
Friday was for Federer, no matter the outcome.
“All the players will miss him,” said Casper Ruud, who beat Sock in singles 6-4, 5-7, 10-7.
The day’s other results, which left Team Europe and Team World tied 2-2: Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 in a game briefly interrupted when an environmental protester lit part of the pitch and his own arm on it. fire, and Alex de Minaur edged past Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7.
Due to start playing soon after Murray’s loss was over, Federer and Nadal first gave him some training tips and then watched some of it on TV together in a room of the arena, waiting their turn. When Federer and Nadal were in action, it was Djokovic’s turn to come up with a strategy.
The final hurrah came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 singles match wins for Federer, both behind Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968.
At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005 to 2007. Extend that to 2010, and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.
More than those numbers, people will remember the powerful forehand, one-handed backhand, flawless footwork, spectacularly efficient serve and eagerness to get to the net, willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part he’s most proud of – the unusual longevity. Beyond elegance and efficient racquet handling, Federer’s personality has made him an ambassador for tennis, someone whose immense popularity has helped attract fans.
“It feels like a celebration to me,” Federer said before taking a victory lap-like stroll around the venue, blowing kisses and waving. “I wanted to feel like this at the end, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for.”