In London, after midnight, the final point in the career of Roger Federer was played. That this meant that his last match had ended in a heartbreaking loss in a decisive tie-break didn’t seem to matter. Soon after, Federer burst into tears, not because of the result, but because of the people with whom he could share this moment. Soon Rafael Nadal was crying next to him. By the end, there was almost no one who wasn’t.
For so many years, Federer faced Nadal in the heat of battle, the intensity of their rivalry taking the sport to a new level. When he came out, he did it with Nadal by his side in an iconic latest partnership. Nadal warned that the departure of the most important figure in the history of tennis would be a difficult moment, and since the lump in Federer’s throat kept him from talking until late at night at the O2 Arena, so it turned out.
Federer wanted to put on a show in the final match of his career and gave him the spectacle of two of the sport’s great rivals together on the same side of the net. An exciting clash with Francis Tiafoe and Jack Sock, who represented the World Team at the Laver Cup, did not end with the result that many had hoped for before the final farewell to Federer, but the historic night for tennis did end with celebration.
“It was exactly what I hoped for,” Federer said as he was joined by Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the players who defined the era of tennis, as well as his family. The outburst of emotions was caused by the mention of the support of his wife Mirka and their four children. For more than two decades, he has embodied much of what countless athletes and athletes have dedicated countless hours of their lives to: greatness. The end was much more personal, much more human.
“Of course, this match was special, but that’s really all that happened after,” said Federer. “Looking around, I see how everyone got emotional. That’s what I’ll remember: the faces I saw.” He smiled. “Rafa was one of them.”
Nadal was shaking on the first serve and his first mistake was a double fault when the event came to an end. “It was a tough day to get through all the stuff and things got very emotional at the end,” he said. “It was a great honor for me to be a part of this amazing moment in the history of our sport. When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life also leaves.”
Federer is now retiring from a sport in which he achieved what was close to perfection. In his final match and first court appearance in over a year, he lived up to his hopes of some competitiveness. In two sets and a thrilling tie-break decider, he and Nadal have achieved so much more. Federer stood with a matchball and was one step away from a perfect finish.
This week, he admitted that he would miss the little things: put on his shoes for the last time before entering the court, adjust his bandanna and take one last look in the mirror. But what he won’t miss in retirement is the long wait before an important match and the lump in his stomach that haunts him throughout the day. He was kept waiting until 10pm in London after Andy Murray’s drawn-out match delayed the inevitable by giving him another hour of life he would soon leave behind.
Federer and Nadal came out as two and took turns throwing goal kicks from the start, working in tandem. In the first match, Federer touched a tennis ball for the first time since July last year with a volley, followed by Nadal’s own. The pair played a short, fast game, narrowing the points and closing the floor. There were, understandably, moments of rust, but Nadal wanted to intervene when Federer was on the back line.
Federer kept it simple, but he was still capable of the extraordinary, even if a passing winner who actually punched a hole the size of a tennis ball in the net might not have counted as a valid shot. Federer’s serve is still one of the best. His kicks and subtle spins fooled Sok, and together with his fast hands near the net, they gave him and Nadal a solid enough platform to build on.
As the debut was tight and there were few chances in the return game, Federer rushed into the fray to parry the blow when Tiafoe and Sok were threatened. Nadal then miraculously opened the floor with a winning corner. Sensing an opportunity, Federer found his forehand as Europe broke down to take a set.
Sok and Tiafoe were determined to face the harsh opponents and coped with the task. They broke early in the second when Nadal shot from the right and Federer, stretched out at the net, couldn’t keep the ball in play. A delightful touch from Tiafoe and smooth volleys put the American pair ahead as Federer and Nadal briefly interfered with each other in the back of the court.
Nadal responded with a victorious gliding left around the post that Federer would have been proud of. The hold helped the pair calm down again and they were able to break Tiafoe’s serve arms in the next game to even. Federer and Nadal fought hard for momentum that was never achieved. Djokovic, who was sitting by the court, went up to the winner and well-aimed volleys, of which there were several, but it was Tiafoe and Sok who carried their threat into the tie-break of the second set and played at a more stable level.
In the decider, Federer and Nadal quickly took the lead and the Swiss created one of his finest chances. An ace and a rushing volley, reading a Juice pass down the line, put the European team in the position where Federer stood with the ball in his hand at match point.
John McEnroe insisted that his peace team wasn’t the villain, but when Tiafoe got Federer caught in a web of errors and then Soc passed him with the winner on the right down the line, the brutal twist was that they lived up to their role. However, in the last minutes, no one objected. Federer and the memories he leaves behind will last much longer.