It was after midnight in London when the last point of Roger Federer’s career was played. That it meant his last match ended in heartbreaking defeat, on a decisive tiebreak, didn’t seem to matter. Federer was in tears shortly afterwards, not because of the result, but because of the people he was able to share the moment with. Rafael Nadal was soon crying next to him. By the end, there was hardly anyone who wasn’t.
For so many years, Federer had faced Nadal in the heat of battle, the intensity of their rivalry taking the sport to new heights. When he went out, he did so with Nadal by his side in an iconic final partnership. Nadal had warned that the departure of the most important figure in tennis history would be a difficult moment and as the lump in Federer’s throat blocked his words late into the night at the O2 Arena, it proved so.
Federer wanted to showcase the final match of his career and provided it with the sight of two of the sport’s great rivals together on the same side of the net. A thrilling contest with Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock, representing Team World in the Laver Cup, did not end with the result many had hoped for before Federer’s final farewell, but a historic night for tennis still ended with a celebration.
“It was exactly what I was hoping for,” Federer said as he was joined by Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the players who defined an era of tennis, as well as his family. It was the mention of the support of his wife Mirka and their four children that led to the outpouring of emotion. For more than two decades, he has epitomized so much of what countless sportsmen and women have devoted countless hours of their lives to: greatness. The ending was much more personal, much more human.
“The match was special, sure, but it’s really everything that happened after,” Federer said. “Look around and see how emotional everyone got. That’s what I’ll remember: the faces I saw.” He smiled, “Rafa was one of them.”
Nadal was shaky on his opening serves and his first was a double fault as the final of the occasion set in. “It’s been a hard day dealing with every single thing, and in the end it all got super emotional,” he said. “For me, it has been a great honor to be a part of this great moment in our sport’s history. When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is also leaving.”
Federer is now departing from a sport where he achieved what was close to perfection. In his final game, and first appearance on the court in over a year, he lived up to his expectations of being somewhat competitive. Over two sets and a thrilling deciding tiebreak, he and Nadal achieved much more. Federer was at one match point and was a moment away from the perfect finish.
He will miss the little things, he admitted this week: putting on his shoes for the last time before going out on the court, adjusting his bandana and that last look in the mirror. But one thing he won’t miss in retirement is the long wait before a big game, and the knot in his stomach that follows him during the day. He had to wait until after 10pm in London, after Andy Murray’s long match delayed the inevitable and gave him another hour of the life he will soon leave behind.
Federer and Nadal had come out as two and from the start they took turns hitting from the net and worked in tandem. In the opening game, Federer’s first touch of a competitive tennis ball since last July was a driven volley, and Nadal followed with a stroke of his own. The pair continued a short, fast match, reducing the score and closing the court. There were, understandably, moments of rust, but Nadal looked to step in when Federer was at the baseline.
Federer kept it simple but he remained capable of the extraordinary, although a passing winner that actually went through a hole in the net the size of a tennis ball might not have counted as a legal shot. Federer’s serve is still one of the best around. Its kicks and subtle spin fooled Sock and, along with his quick hands at the net, provided a solid enough platform for him and Nadal to build on.
With the opening tight and few chances appearing on the return leg, Federer sprung into action to put away a smash with Tiafoe and Sock threatening. Nadal then opened up the court wonderfully with an angled winner. Sensing the opportunity, Federer found his forehand as Europe broke to take the set.
Sock and Tiafoe were determined, boring opponents to face and rose to the task. They broke early in the second when Nadal fired a forehand wide and Federer, reaching for the net, couldn’t keep a ball in play. Tiafoe’s delightful touch and faded volleys led to the American pair, as Federer and Nadal briefly got in each other’s way at the back of the court.
Nadal responded with a sliding backhand winner around the posts that Federer would have been proud of. The hold helped the pair settle back down, and they were able to break the weapon of Tiafoe’s serve in the following game to level. Federer and Nadal fought hard for momentum that never quite came. Djokovic, sitting on the court, stepped on the winners and clinical volleys, of which there were several, but it was Tiafoe and Sock who took their threat into the second set tiebreak and played at a more even level.
In the decider, Federer and Nadal shot themselves into an early lead and the Swiss produced one of his finest moments. An ace and a quick volley, which read Sock’s pass down the line, moved the European team into a position where Federer was ball in hand, on match point.
John McEnroe had insisted his Team World team were not villains, but when Tiafoe forced Federer into the foul net and then Sock passed him with a forehand winner down the line, the cruel twist was that they had lived up to their role. In the final moments, however, no one seemed to mind. Federer, and the memories he leaves us with, will last much longer.