Roger Federer‘s career may have ended in defeat on Friday, but the five-minute standing ovation that followed was a testament to the unique, indelible mark he left on the sport of tennis.
The adulation of the crowd, seemingly endless applause and chants of “Roger, Roger, Roger”, reduced Federer to tears.
“I’m happy, I’m not sad,” he said after the match, a 6-4 6-7 9-11 defeat to Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe. along with longtime friend and rival Rafael Nadal at the Laver Cup at London’s O2 Arena.
“I enjoyed tying my shoes one last time. Everything was for the last time.”
After 24 years of excellence on the court – more than 1,500 matches, 103 singles and 20 grand slams – it was Federer’s last competitive match.
The epic tie that sealed victory for the American pair was a fitting end to not only a match that, despite the intense and often emotional build-up, far exceeded expectations in its grandeur and quality, but also a career that produced so many. moments of genius and provided 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 some welcome prestige to this weekend’s game.
While the competition, with nine singles and three doubles matches, may have previously garnered insubstantial global attention, this year’s edition has now undoubtedly become one of the biggest tennis events of the year.
Of course, that was mostly due to it being Federer’s swan song, but it also provided tennis fans with something they hadn’t seen in many years: Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all healthy and competing together on the same court tournament
Social media posts by these four superstars in the week leading up to the event would have definitely made fans feel nostalgic. The quartet showed a genuine warmth towards each other, akin to a group of school friends who hadn’t been together for many years, as they explored the sights of London.
Perhaps, however, the feelings of nostalgia came not only from the 2022 Laver Cup signaling the end of Federer’s long and illustrious career, but also from the fact that it finally confirmed the beginning of the end of the golden age of tennis .
With Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all well into their 30s and all suffering long injury absences at some point during their careers, their eventual retirements now loom 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 grace the same tournament again.
Where Federer’s achievements on the court rank among the greats in the men’s game will be up for debate – although he is undoubtedly 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 the game, no one else in the sport has garnered the global adoration, endorsements or become a cultural icon quite like the soft-spoken Swiss superstar.
For most of his career, Federer seemed to glide around the court rather than sponge, his locks flowing and bouncing over his headband, while his outrageously aesthetic one-handed backhand became arguably the most iconic and recognizable shot tennis has ever seen.
More importantly, the beauty of his game brought – at the peak 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, then became the first to reach the landmark 20.
While Nadal and Djokovic may have now surpassed their grand slam total, the epic battles Federer had with these two players throughout his career only added to his legacy.
On another day, the three matches that preceded Federer’s final farewell might have been remarkable in their own right – Muray vs. Alex De Minaur was a particularly engaging encounter – but today felt like a warm-up for the main event.
Before the end of the second set of Murray’s match against De Minaur – which the Australian won in a third-set match challenge to score Team World’s first point of the day – Federer changed into his Team Europe shorts and headband -dugout and looked ready to take to the court, only adding to the anticipation that was steadily building inside the arena.
In De Minaur’s on-court interview after the match, he mentioned how he would be cheering for Team World against Nadal and Federer, resulting in the 23-year-old being roundly booed by a crowd who then burst into laughter.
When Federer’s name was finally announced as he made his way onto the court, the noise from the crowd was so deafening that it drowned out the announcer’s voice completely before he could finish introducing the Swiss and his doubles partner Nadal.
The 41-year-old was met with another thunderous cheer when he read out his achievements during the warm-ups, but the loudest roar came when Federer punched a volley to give him and Nadal their first point of the match.
For most of the opening exchanges, there was still zip in Federer’s shots as he carried himself with his trademark grace around the court, but chasing a Tiafoe drop that landed not two yards in front of him, the age in Federer’s legs began. to show for the first time as he struggled to reach the ball.
Not that these moments happened often, a remarkable thought given his age and the three knee surgeries he’s undergone. In fact, as he continued to show remarkable touch – especially at the net – probably most in the capacity crowd inside the O2 Arena wondered why he retired at all.
One moment in particular drew shocked gasps from the crowd as the big screens showed the replays. Chasing a short ball, Federer squeezed his forehand through the tiny gap between the net and the post.
It may have cost them the point as the ball went under the top of the net, but even in the final game of his career Federer produced moments most never before seen on a tennis court.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there still seemed to be plenty of magic left in what many viewers throughout his career often described as a wand instead of a racket.
There were plenty of smiles from both Federer and Nadal early on, including a laugh when Federer clearly misheard the plan for the next point and had to go back to his partner for another discussion, resulting in the Swiss fearfully holding his hands up to. to apologize
But as the first set wore on, the mood on the court changed as the relentless competitive nature that had made these two players such a force over the years finally began to surface.
When the pair, affectionately dubbed “Fedal” by fans, clinched the first set 6-4, the atmosphere inside the arena was on the verge of party mode.
But make no mistake, Sock and Tiafoe were not at all happy to roll over and allow Federer to walk 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 back 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 back-to-back smashes from Federer that drew raucous cheers from the crowd – to put the pair on the edge of the match. victory
But Sock then held a delicate service game of his own to take the set to parity, the first point of which Federer – and the whole stadium – thought he served an ace, only to be greeted with a “left” call from the. a referee who was loudly booed by the entire arena.
A brilliant tie from the American duo sealed the second set and led to an epic decider.
The drama that was packed into the third set – a 3-0 lead opened up and squandered by Federer and Nadal, a brutal forehand that Tiafoe smashed into Federer’s back and an ace from Federer that was greeted with a standing ovation – was a fitting end to an incomparable career.
In the end, that Federer could not secure the victory did not matter too much and the emotion in his farewell speech – barely able to get through it talking about the support his family gave him during his career – also reduced his doubles. partner to tears.
“It feels like a party,” Federer said. “Exactly what I wanted at the end, exactly what I hoped for.”