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 included 20 Grand Slam titles and a statesman role. He concluded his days as a professional player with a 4-6, 7-6(2), 11-9 doubles loss alongside longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World. .
Winners, stats and score didn’t matter and were all totally irrelevant. The occasion was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, farewell: 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.”
When the match, and with it his time in professional tennis, ended, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer started crying. 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.
The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day tag team event, founded by his management company, would be his last event before retirement, then clarified that the doubles outing would be his last match. His surgically repaired right knee – the last of three operations came shortly after a Wimbledon quarter-final loss in July 2021, which will be his last official singles match – is unable to allow him to Continue.
“For me, personally, [it was] sad at first, 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 him back at first and then fought him. But I could feel the pain.”
Hours before Friday’s game, Federer tweeted: “I’ve done this a thousand times, but this one is different. Thanks to everyone who comes tonight.”
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 – each wearing white bandanas, blue shirts and white shorts – emerged together. of a tunnel leading to the black court for the final match of Day 1 at the O2 Arena. Spectators remained on their feet 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, and they were heard with a wall of sound when Federer delivered a forehand volley winner 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.
The double requires much less movement and court coverage, of course, so the stress on his knee was limited on Friday. Federer showed touches of his old flair, of course, and some rust, as was to be expected.
As his parents and wife sat front row behind a baseline, 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 it was essentially a glorified exhibition, the four doubles participants played as if they wanted to win. It 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 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-net shot around the post, only for it to land barely wide, Tiafoe crossed to reach out with praise for the effort.
In the first set, the game’s two greats couldn’t quite get along between the points, so Federer trotted from the net to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pricked his ear to signal to the fans what the problem. .
Prior to Federer, 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.
Federer’s substantial resume includes 310 weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a Davis Cup title and Olympic medals. Beyond elegance and efficient racquet handling, his personality made Federer an ambassador of tennis, someone whose immense popularity helped attract fans.
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.
“Two of the ‘GOATs’ are playing together,” Sock said, using the popular acronym for “Greatest of All-Time.”
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 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 arms on fire. , and Alex de Minaur beat 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 offer strategic advice.
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 – 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.”
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