Roger Federer’s career may have ended with a defeat on Friday, but the five-minute standing ovation that followed was a testament to the unique and indelible mark he left on the sport of tennis.
The adulation of the crowd, the seemingly endless applause and chants of “Roger, Roger, Roger,” brought Federer to tears.
“I’m happy, I’m not sad,” he said after the match, a 6-4, 6-7, 9-11 loss to Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe alongside his friend and long-time rival Rafael Nadal in the Laver Cup at the O2 in London. arena
“I enjoyed tying my shoes for the last time. It was all for the last time.”
After 24 years of excellence on the court, more than 1,500 matches, 103 singles titles and 20 Grand Slams, this was Federer’s last competitive match.
The epic tiebreaker that sealed victory for the American pair was a fitting end not only to a match that, despite the intense and often emotional build-up, far exceeded expectations in its grandeur and quality, but also a career that has produced so many. moments of genius and brought joy to so many.
For a three-day competition between teams from Europe and the rest of the world that has rarely felt like much more than an exhibition since its inception in 2017, the announcement of Federer’s retirement added welcome prestige to the game this weekend.
Although the competition, with nine singles matches and three doubles matches, may have previously garnered little global attention, this year’s edition had undoubtedly become one of the most important tennis events in the year.
Of course, that was largely because it was Federer’s swan song, but it also gave tennis fans something they hadn’t seen in years: Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all healthy and competing together in the same tournament.
The social media posts of these four superstars in the week leading up to the event would certainly have made fans nostalgic. The foursome showed a genuine warmth with each other, akin to a group of school friends who hadn’t been together in years, as they explored London’s landmarks.
Perhaps, however, the feelings of nostalgia came not only from the 2022 Laver Cup marking the end of Federer’s long and storied career, but also from the fact that it finally confirmed the beginning of the end of the golden era of tennis
With Nadal, Djokovic and Murray well into their 30s and all suffering long injury absences at some point in their careers, their eventual retirements now loom large over the sport.
These four players – “the big 3 plus some clown”, as Murray comically put it on his own Instagram page – will officially never enjoy the same tournament again.
Where Federer’s achievements on the court rank among the greats of the men’s game will be debated, although he is certainly in the top three, there is no doubt that he is the most transcendent tennis player to ever pick up a racket.
Largely because of the way he played, no one else in the sport has achieved global adoration, endorsements or become a cultural icon like the suave Swiss superstar.
For most of his career, Federer appeared to glide down the court rather than run, his locks flowing and bouncing above his headband, while his outrageously aesthetic one-handed backhand became, without doubtless in the most iconic and recognizable shot that tennis has ever seen.
More importantly, the beauty of his game brought – at the height of his powers – unprecedented success. He became the first player to surpass the previous men’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles held by Pete Sampras, and then became the first to reach the 20 mark.
While Nadal and Djokovic may have now surpassed their Grand Slam totals, the epic battles Federer had with these two players during his career only added to his legacy.
On another day, the three matches leading up to Federer’s final farewell may have been remarkable in their own right – Murray v Alex De Minaur was a particularly captivating encounter – but today was more like a warm-up for the main event .
At the end of the second set of Murray’s match against De Minaur, which the Australian won in a third-set tiebreak to earn the World Team’s first point of the day, Federer had changed into shorts and a headband in Team Europe’s dugout and looked set to take the court, only adding to the anticipation that had been building inside the arena.
In De Minaur’s on-court interview after the match, he mentioned how he would fare in the world team against Nadal and Federer, prompting the 23-year-old to be roundly booed by a crowd who then burst into laughter .
When Federer’s name was finally announced as he entered the court, the noise from the crowd was so deafening that it completely drowned out the announcer’s voice before he could finish introducing the Swiss and his doubles partner Nadal.
The 41-year-old was met with another booming cheer when his achievements were read out during the warm-ups, but the loudest roar came when Federer fired a volley to give him and Nadal the first point of the match
For most of the opening exchanges, there was still zip to Federer’s shots as he carried himself with his characteristic grace down the court, but when he chased down a Tiafoe shot that landed not two meters in front of him, he started the age of Federer’s legs. to show for the first time as he struggled to get to the ball.
Not that those moments happened often, a remarkable thought given his age and the three knee surgeries he’s undergone. Indeed, while he continued to show remarkable touch, particularly in net, most people in the O2 Arena were likely to wonder why he was retiring.
One moment in particular drew gasps from the crowd when the big screens showed the replays. While chasing a short ball, Federer squeezed his right hand through the small space between the net and the post.
He might have lost the point as the ball went under the net, but even in the final match of his career Federer was producing moments that most had never seen before on a tennis court.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there still seemed to be plenty of magic left in what many viewers throughout his career have often described as a wand rather than a racket.
There were plenty of smiles from both Federer and Nadal early on, including a laugh when Federer had clearly misheard the plan for the next point and had to go back to his partner for another conversation, leading to that the Swiss shyly raised his hands apologetically.
But as the first set wore on, the mood on the court changed as the relentless competitive nature that has made these two players a force over the years finally began to shine through.
When the pair, affectionately dubbed ‘Fedal’ by fans, took the first set 6-4, the atmosphere in the arena was on the verge of party mode.
But make no mistake, Sock and Tiafoe weren’t happy to roll over and allow Federer to ride off into the sunset with an easy win. The American duo broke serve early in the second set as they looked to spoil the party atmosphere, but Federer and Nadal soon broke to restore parity.
The best game of the match came with the score tied at 5-5 as Nadal saved six break points, including one from Federer’s famous forays that drew cheers from the crowd, to put the pair on the brink of victory .
But Sock produced a tricky service game of his own to take the set to a tiebreak, the first point of which Federer – and the entire stadium – thought he had served an ace, only to be greeted by a “let” call from referee who was loudly booed by the entire arena.
A brilliant tiebreaker from the American duo sealed the second set and led to an epic decider.
The drama that piled up in the third set: a 3-0 lead that Federer and Nadal blew and squandered, a brutal forehand that Tiafoe smashed into Federer’s back and a Federer ace that was greeted with a huge standing ovation, it was a fitting end. an incomparable career.
In the end, Federer’s failure to win didn’t matter too much and the emotion in his farewell speech was barely overcome when he spoke of the support his family had given him throughout the his career, he also reduced his doubles. mate to tears.
“It looks like a celebration,” Federer said. “It’s exactly what I wanted in the end, exactly what I hoped for.”