The final point of Roger Federer’s career was after midnight in London. That it meant his last match ended in a heartbreaking loss in a deciding tiebreak didn’t seem to matter. Federer was in tears soon after, not because of the result, but because of the people he got to share the moment with. Soon, Rafael Nadal was crying next to him. In 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. On his way out, he did so with Nadal 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 a lump in Federer’s throat blocked his words late into the night at the O2 Arena, it proved to be the case.
Federer was looking to perform in the final match of his career and saw the sport’s two great rivals on the same side of the net together. A thrilling contest with Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock representing Team World at the Laver Cup did not end with the result many had hoped for ahead of Federer’s final farewell, but a historic night for tennis still ended in celebration.
“It was exactly what I hoped for,” Federer said as he was joined by tennis era-definers Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, as well as his family. It was the mention of the support of his wife Mirka and their four children that led to an outpouring of emotion. For more than two decades, he has epitomized so much of what countless sportsmen and women have dedicated countless hours of their lives to: greatness. The ending was much more personal, much more human.
Quite simply, it made it so much better. “The match was definitely special, but that’s really all that happened after that,” Federer said. “Looking around and watching everyone get emotional. That’s what I remember: the faces I saw. He smiled. “Rafa was one of them.”
Nadal trembled as he made his opening serve as the finality of the event loomed. “It’s been hard to deal with everything, and in the end it all gets super emotional,” he said. “It has been an honor to be a part of this amazing moment in the history of our sport. When Roger leaves the Tour, so does an important part of my life.
Federer is now leaving a sport where what he achieved was almost perfect. In his last match and for the first time on the field in over a year, he lived up to his expectations of being competitive. With two sets and a thrilling deciding tiebreak, he and Nadal achieved much more. Federer stood with the match point and was moments away from a perfect finish.
He admitted this week that he misses the little things: putting on his shoes one last time before going out on the court, adjusting his bandana and taking one last look in the mirror. But one thing he won’t miss in retirement is the long wait before a big match and the knot in his stomach that follows him during the day. He was made to wait in London after 10pm after Andy Murray’s long match postponed the inevitable, giving him another hour of the life he will soon leave behind.
Earlier, before the emotion and in a completely different part of the night, there was tennis. Federer and Nadal had stepped up as twos and took turns hitting the net from the start, working together. The pair continued to play a short and fast game, reducing points and closing the field. Understandably, there were moments of rust, but Nadal wanted to intervene when Federer was on the baseline.
Federer kept it simple, but was capable of the extraordinary, even when a passer actually passing through a hole in the net the size of a tennis ball might not be allowed a shot. Federer’s serve is still one of the best. Its forehands and subtle spins fooled Sock, and combined with his quick hands at the net, it gave him and Nadal a solid enough platform to build on.
With a tight opening set and few chances in the replay, Federer began to attack with threats from Tiafoe and Sock. Nadal then opened the court with a wonderfully angled winner. Sensing an opportunity, Federer found his forehand as Europe broke the set.
Sokk and Tiafoe were determined, sharp opponents and up to the task. They broke early in the second game when Nadal sent a forehand wide and a sprawling Federer at the net was unable to keep the ball in play. Tiafoe’s delightful touch and disappearing shots put the American pair ahead 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 regain their footing, and Tiafoe’s service weapon was broken in the next game to level. Federer and Nadal fought hard for momentum that never quite arrived. Sitting courtside, Djokovic surged with winners and clinical shots of which there were several, but Tiafoe and Sock carried their threat into the second-set tiebreak and played at a more even level.
In the decider, Federer and Nadal took an early lead and the Swiss produced one of his best moments. An ace and quick shot as Sock’s pass down the line put the European team in a position where Federer stood ball in hand on match point.
John McEnroe had insisted his Team World side were not villains, but when Tiafoe forced Federer into the foul net and then Sock went past him with a forehand winner, it was cruel that they had played their part. But in the final moments, no one seemed to mind. Federer and the memories he leaves us with will last much longer.