LONDON (AP) — This day, this match, had to come naturally for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it must be inevitable for any athlete in any sport.
Federer said goodbye with one last game on Friday night before retiring at the age of 41 after a superlative with 20 Grand Slam titles and the role of statesman. He ended his days as a professional player with a loss in doubles alongside his old rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.
The truth is that the winners, the stats and the score (okay, for the record it was 4-6, 7-6 (2), 11-9) didn’t matter, and were all so completely off the mark. After all, it was about the farewell itself. Or, more accurately, the farewell, plural: Federer’s tennis, for the fans, for his competitors and colleagues. And of course the farewell of each of those entities to Federer.
“It was a perfect trip,” Federer said. “I would do it again.”
When the match ended, and with it his time in professional tennis, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer started to cry. As cascades of claps and screams of affection came from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. Then he said with his mouth, “Thank you,” applauding back to the spectators who had been singing, “Let’s go, Roger! Let’s go!” during the closing moments of a match that lasted more than two hours and ended around 12:30 pm
The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day team event, which had been set up by his management company, would be his last event before retiring, then made it clear that the doubles would be his last match. His surgically repaired right knee – the last of three surgeries came shortly after a loss in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in July 2021, which will go on as his last official singles match – is unable to keep him going.
“For me personally, it was sad at the first moment when I came to the conclusion that this was the best decision,” Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions as he realized it was time to move on. to go. . “I held it back a bit at first, then fought it off. But I felt the pain.”
A few hours before Friday’s game, Federer tweeted: “I’ve done this thousands of times, but this one feels different. Thank you to everyone coming tonight.”
He’d said he wanted this to feel more like a party than a funeral, and the crowd agreed and got up to a loud and prolonged standing ovation when Federer and Nadal—each in white bandanas, blue shirts, and white shorts – together from a tunnel leading to the black track for the final match on day 1 at the O2 Arena. The spectators stood for nearly 10 minutes, during the pre-match warm-up, with phone cameras aloft to capture the moment.
They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, some with homemade signs, and they were heard with a wall of noise as Federer delivered a forehand volley winner on the second point of the match. Similar reactions came only with the chair umpire’s announcement for “Roger Federer’s third game to serve,” and again when he finished that game with a 210 mph service winner.
Doubles, of course, requires much less movement and court coverage, so pressure on his knee was limited on Friday. Federer certainly showed his old flair and rust, as was to be expected.
While his parents and wife were in the front row behind a baseline, there were a few early forehands that sailed a few feet too long. There was also a forehand that slid right between Sock and Tiafoe and seemed too good to be true – and it turned out to be: The ball went through a hole under the net band and so the point was taken away from Federer and Nadal.
While it was essentially a glorified exhibit, all four contestants played the doubles as if they wanted to win. That was evident when Sock jumped and screamed after a particularly great volley or when Tiafoe fired a few shots at Federer and Nadal.
But circumstances allowed for moments of levity.
Federer and Nadal were able to laugh after a bit of confusion about what kind of ball should go at a point they lost. After Nadal somehow fired a back-to-the-net shot around the post, only to land the net wide, Tiafoe crossed over to extend a hand in congratulations for the effort.
In the first set, the two greats of the game couldn’t quite hear each other between points, so Federer trotted from the net back to the baseline to consult Nadal, then pointed to his ear to let the fans know what the problem was.
Before Federer, the men’s figure for most major tennis championships was 14 by Pete Sampras. Federer blew past that, collecting eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open and one at the French Open, setting a new standard that equaled Nadal, now 22, and Novak Djokovic, 21, and subsequently surpassed , as part of a golden era for the sport.
Federer’s substantial resume includes 310 weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a Davis Cup title and Olympic medals. In addition to the elegance and effectiveness while wielding a racket, his persona made Federer an ambassador for tennis, one whose immense popularity helped attract fans.
Certainly, there are those who would have found it particularly appropriate to see Federer finish over the net from Nadal, often a nemesis on the pitch but ultimately a friend off the pitch. Perhaps it could have taken place about 15 miles away, for example at the Center Court of the All England Club, or at Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, or the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park, or even the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the centerpiece of the US Open, the only Grand Slam tournament they somehow never faced.
Perhaps they could have given everyone one final episode of a live matchup as memorable as any in the long history of their sport — or, indeed, any other.
Roger vs. Rafa – only one name each required – belongs there with McEnroe vs. Borg (coincidentally the two Laver Cup team captains, John and Bjorn), Evert vs. Navratilova, Sampras vs. Agassi, Ali vs. Frazier, Magic vs. Bird, Brady vs. Manning, and so on.
Over the years, Federer and Nadal showed individual greatness and compelling contrasts in their 40 matches, 14 at Grand Slam tournaments, nine in grand finals: right versus left, attacker versus grinder, seemingly effortless versus relentless intensity.
And yet there was an undeniable element of poetry with these two men challenging and elevating each other, acting as partners, slapping palms and smiling.
“Two of the ‘GOATs’ play together,” Sock said, using the popular acronym for “Greatest of All-Time.”
This farewell follows Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the US Open three weeks ago after a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she dominated and transcended for decades.
One key difference: Every time Williams entered New York court, the looming question of how long her stay would last — a “win or this is it” prospect. Friday it WAS for Federer regardless of the outcome.
“All players will miss him,” said Casper Ruud, who defeated Sock in singles 6-4, 5-7, 10-7.
The other results, which left Team Europe and Team World 2-2: Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 in a match that was briefly interrupted when an environmental protester lit part of the field and smashed his own arm , and Alex de Minaur got past Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7.
Since he started playing shortly after Murray’s loss, Federer and Nadal first gave him some coaching tips and then watched some of them on TV together in a room in the arena, waiting for their turn. When Federer and Nadal were in action, it was Djokovic’s turn to offer strategic advice.
The final hurrah came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 singles wins for Federer, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968.
At the peak of his prowess, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight of them, from 2005-07. Extend that to 2010 and he reached 18 of the 19 grand finals.
More than those numbers, people will remember the powerful forehand, one-handed backhand, impeccable footwork, spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to go to the net, willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part where he is most proud of – unusual longevity.
“I don’t think we’ll see another man like Roger,” Tiafoe said. “The way he played and the grace with which he did it, and who he is as an individual.”