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 competitors of the generation – were packed together for their Laver Cup press conference on Thursday, as they all came together for the final times as professionals.
As they reminisced about their old matches and laughed at shared memories, glorious or devastating depending on the perspective, Federer intervened: “When I sit here, it feels good to go first among the guys,” he said with a smile. “It just feels right.”
In many ways, this final chapter of Federer’s career is bleak. Despite his reputation for avoiding serious injuries during his career, his final years have been plagued by physical problems. Unlike Serena Williams’ recent intense, competitive departure, Federer can’t rely on his knee to last more than one short doubles match. In his final fight alongside Nadal, his Team Europe team-mate, he will take to the O2 Arena on Friday night against Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock, simply hoping to compete at a respectable level.
But the circumstances are appropriate. He will be sent off by three of the toughest opponents of his life, players who have defined tennis with him for the past year and a half and brought it to the fore in so many ways. Together they won 66 grand slam titles, faced each other 234 times and were #1 for 933 weeks. For more than a decade, they grabbed the later stages of every major event and blocked nearly all others from succeeding.
“Tomorrow will be something special,” Nadal said. “I think a very difficult, difficult one. It will no doubt be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger. Also for me. In the end, one of the most important players, if not the most important player in my tennis career, is going to leave, right?”
Federer arrived first and at the age of 41 he will leave in that order. Five years older than Nadal, 36, set the bar high, won his first grand slam title in 2003, exercised his dominance and forced everyone else to catch up. Nadal followed, a teenage supernova that settled first on clay and then gradually overtook elsewhere.
Just as they had built a two-pronged rivalry, sharply contrasting their games and personalities, Djokovic, now 35, smashed through the seemingly impenetrable barrier they had built and marked himself as their equal. While Murray, 35, isn’t quite among the big three, for many years he was the only other player to consistently face them in the biggest events.
Over time, they pushed each other and forced the others to take their game to greater heights. They have played some of the best matches ever and they have broken each other’s hearts all the time.
In addition to the clear respect, there were of course also many moments of tension.
Now they play the final moments of Federer’s career on the same side of the field. “We will do our best to contribute to the team and deliver a good performance, but at the same time we marvel and celebrate his career because he deserves it in a great way,” said Djokovic.