It was after midnight in London when the last point of Roger Federer’s career was played. It didn’t seem to matter that it meant his last game ended in a heartbreaking defeat, on a decisive tiebreak. Federer was in tears shortly after, not because of the result, but because of the people he got 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 thick of battle, with 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 the lump in Federer’s throat blocked his words late into the night at the O2 Arena, it turned out.
Federer wanted to put on a show in the final game of his career, giving him the look of two of the sport’s great rivals together on the same side of the net. A tense match with Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock, who represented Team World in the Laver Cup, didn’t end with the result many had hoped for prior to Federer’s final farewell, but a historic tennis night ended in celebration nonetheless.
“It was exactly as I had hoped,” said Federer 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 emotions. For more than two decades, he typified so much of what countless athletes and athletes have devoted countless hours of their lives to the pursuit of: greatness. The ending was much more personal, much more humane.
“The game was definitely special, but it’s really everything that happened after that,” said Federer. “Look around you and see how everyone got emotional. That’s what I’ll remember: the faces I saw.” He smiled. “Rafa was one of them.”
Nadal trembled on his opening serve and his first was a double foul as the finality of the occasion kicked in. “It was a difficult day to deal with everything and at the end everything got super emotional,” he said. “For me it was a huge honor to be part of this great moment in the history of our sport. When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life will also be gone.”
Federer now starts from a sport in which he approached perfection. In his last game, and his first appearance on the field in over a year, he set his expectations by being somewhat competitive. In straight sets and an exciting decisive tiebreak, he and Nadal achieved much more. Federer stood with a match point and was moments away from the perfect finish.
He’ll miss the little things, he admitted this week: putting on his shoes for the last time before hitting the track, adjusting his bandana and the last look in the mirror. But one thing he won’t miss when he retires is the long wait for a big game and the knot in the stomach that follows him throughout the day. He had to wait until after 10pm in London after Andy Murray’s long match delayed the inevitable, giving him another hour of life that he will soon be leaving behind.
Federer and Nadal had come out as two and from the start they took turns hitting from the net, working together. In the opening game, Federer’s first touch to a competitive tennis ball since last July was a driven volley, and Nadal followed with his own punch. The pair played a short, quick match, narrowed the points and closed the course. There were understandably moments of rust, but Nadal wanted to step in when Federer was at the baseline.
Federer kept it simple, but he remained capable of the extraordinary, even if a passing winner who actually went through a tennis ball-sized hole in the net might not count as a legal shot. Federer’s service is still some of the best out there. His kicks and subtle spins misled Sock and along with his quick hands to the net, it provided a solid enough platform for him and Nadal to build on.
With the opening set tight and few chances in the return leg, Federer sprang into action to work off a smash as Tiafoe and Sock threatened. Nadal then opened the field miraculously with a slanted winner. Federer sensed the opportunity and found his forehand as Europe broke to take the set.
Sock and Tiafoe were determined, tough opponents to face and took on the task. They broke early in the second inning when Nadal pushed a forehand wide and Federer, stretching at the net, couldn’t keep the ball in play. Tiafoe’s ravishing touch and fading volleys gave the American pair the lead, while Federer and Nadal briefly got in each other’s way at the back of the field.
Nadal answered with a sliding backhand winner around the posts that Federer would have been proud of. The hold helped the pair settle down, and they were able to break the weapon from Tiafoe’s storage in the next game to level it. Federer and Nadal fought hard for momentum that never quite came. Sitting on the pitch, Djokovic rose to the winners and clinical volleys, of which there were several, but it was Tiafoe and Sock who passed their threat in the second set tiebreaker and played at a more consistent level.
In the decider, Federer and Nadal shot into an early lead and the Swiss produced one of his finest moments. An ace and a swift volley reading Sock’s pass down the line put the European team in a position where Federer was at match point, ball in hand.
John McEnroe had maintained that his side of Team World were no villains, but when Tiafoe forced Federer into the foul net and Sock then passed him with the forehand winner down the line, the cruel twist was that they had fulfilled their role. But in the final moments, no one seemed to mind. Federer, and the memories he leaves us with, will last much longer.