LONDON — This day, this match, had to come, of course, for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it inevitably must for every athlete in every sport.
Federer was bidding farewell Friday night with one last contest before he heads into retirement at age 41 after an illustrious career that included 20 Grand Slam titles and a role as a statesman for tennis. He was playing a doubles match alongside his rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.
“For me, just personally, (it was) sad in the first moment, when I came to the conclusion it’s the best decision,” Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions when realizing it was time to go. “I kind of held it in at first, then fought it off. But I could feel the pain.”
He said he wanted this to feel more like a party than a funeral, and the crowd obliged Friday, rising for a loud and lengthy standing ovation when Federer and Nadal — each wearing a white bandanna, blue shirt and white shorts — emerged together from a tunnel leading out to the black court for the last match on Day 1 of the three-day team event at the O2 Arena. The spectators remained on their feet for nearly 10 minutes, through the pre-match warmup, holding aloft phone cameras to capture the moment.
A couple of hours earlier, Federer tweeted: “I’ve done this thousands of times, but this one feels different. Thank you to everybody who’s coming tonight.”
They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, some with homemade signs, and they made themselves heard with a wall of sound when Federer delivered a forehand volley winner on the match’s second point. Similar reactions arrived merely at the chair umpire’s announcement before the third game — “Roger Federer to serve” — and when he closed that game with a 117 mph service winner.
Federer announced last week that the Laver Cup, which was founded by his management company, would be his final event before retirement, then made clear the doubles outing would be his last match. His surgically repaired right knee — the last of three operations came shortly after a loss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July 2021, which will go down as his final official singles match — is in no shape to allow him to continue.
Doubles requires far less movement and court coverage, of course, so the stress on his knee was limited Friday. Federer showed touches of his old flair, to be sure, and of rust, as to be expected.
There were a couple of early forehands that sailed several feet to long. There also was a forehand that slid right between Sock and Tiafoe and seemed too god to be true — and, it turned out, was: The ball traveled through a gap below the net tape and so the point was taken away from Federer and Nadal. A moment of levity came later in the first set, which Federer and Nadal claimed by a 6-4 score, when the two greats of the game couldn’t quite hear each other between points. Federer trotted from the net back to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pointed to his ear to signal to the fans what the issue was.
When there were breaks in the action during the matches before his, Federer wandered over to the stands and signed autograph after autograph — on programs, tennis balls, whatever was thrust his way by spectators.
“The crowd was electric,” Sock said after losing the opening singles match Friday afternoon to two-time 2022 Grand Slam runner-up Casper Ruud 6-4, 5-7, 10-7. “I can only imagine what it’s going to be like for the rest of the weekend. And obviously tonight with … two of the ‘GOATs’ playing together.”
The second match was briefly interrupted when an environmental protester made it on to the court and lit a portion of the playing surface and his arm on fire before being carried away by security guards.
“I never had an incident like this happen on court,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 to put Team Europe ahead 2-0.
Just before Ruud vs. Sock began, Federer rose from a black couch just off the sideline and walked over to offer Ruud a pat on the shoulder. During the night session’s singles match, in which Alex de Minaur edged Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7 to cut Team World’s deficit to 2-1, both Federer and 22-time major champion Nadal offered coaching advice.
Due to begin playing shortly after the end of Murray’s loss, Federer and Nadal watched part of it on TV together in a room at the arena, waiting for their turn.
Those lucky enough to have tickets came from all over, no distance too far to travel, no expense too great.
“I have such mixed feelings about this,” said Indrani Maitra, a 49-year-old from India. “I’m really glad I’m being able to catch his last match. But I’m really sad this is his last match.”
She came with her daughter, Anushka Verma, a 19-year-old student at University of California, Berkeley, for what they said was their first time to watch tennis live. Both wore blue hats for the occasion, Maitra’s with Federer’s “RF” insignia, Verma’s with Nadal’s bull horns logo.
This goodbye follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the U.S. 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: Each time Williams took the court in New York, the looming question was how long her stay would endure — a “win or this is it” prospect. Friday WAS it for Federer, no matter the result.
The Laver Cup, which is in its fifth edition, was founded by Federer’s management company and uses a format quite different from a standard tournament. So a victory for him and Nadal would not mean advancing to another round.
“All the players,” Ruud said, “will miss him.”
“Roger is a unicorn in our sport,” Tsitsipas said this week. “He has all my respect, all my appreciation for what he has offered to tennis today. It’s something that, for sure, is not going to be forgotten for thousands of years. He has that charisma and purity and aura about him that made him kind of invincible when he was on the court.”
Tiafoe’s take on Federer was similar: “I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger, the way he played, and the grace he did it with, and who he is as an individual.”
The last hurrah comes after a total of 103 tour-level titles on Federer’s substantial resume and 1,251 wins in singles matches, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968. Federer’s records include being the oldest No. 1 in ATP rankings history — he returned to the top spot at 36 in 2018 — and most consecutive weeks there (his total weeks mark was eclipsed by Novak Djokovic).
At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005-07. Trace it out to 2010 and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.
More than the numbers, folks will remember that powerful forehand, one-handed backhand and flawless footwork, a spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, a willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and — the part he’s proudest of — unusual longevity. Then, too, there is his persona away from the court.
All of which is part of why the truth Friday was that the eventual winner of Federer-Nadal vs. Tiafoe-Sock, the score, the statistics — none of that would matter, was all so entirely beside the point. The day was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, the farewells: Federer’s to tennis, to the fans, to his colleagues. And, naturally, each of those entities’ farewells to Federer.