Roger Federer’s career may have ended in a defeat on Friday, but the five-minute standing ovation that followed was testament to the unique, indelible mark he left on the sport of tennis.
The adulation of the crowd, seemingly endless rounds of 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 alongside 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 the last time.”
Following 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 tiebreak that sealed the win for the American pair was a fitting end to not only a match that, despite the intense and often emotional build-up, far surpassed expectations in its grandeur and quality, but also a career that has 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 play.
While the competition, featuring nine head-to-head singles and three doubles matches, may have previously garnered unsubstantial global attention, this year’s edition had now unquestionably become one of the biggest tennis events of the year.
Of course, this was largely due to it being Federer’s swansong, but it was also providing tennis fans with something they hadn’t seen for many years: Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all healthy and together competing at the same tournament.
Social media posts from these four superstars in the week leading up to the event no doubt would have had fans feeling nostalgic. The quartet displayed genuine warmth towards one another, akin to a group of school friends that hadn’t been together for many years, as they explored London’s landmarks.
Perhaps, though, the feelings of nostalgia came not only from the 2022 Laver Cup signaling the end of Federer’s long and storied career, but also from the fact it finally confirmed the beginning of the end of tennis’ golden era.
With Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all well into their 30s and all suffering lengthy injury absences at some point during 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 grace the same tournament again.
Goodbye to a legend
Where Federer’s on-court achievements rank among the greats in the men’s game will be up for debate – though he is no doubt in the top three – there is no question he is the most transcendent tennis player to ever pick up a racket.
Largely due to the way he played the game, nobody else in the sport has garnered the global adoration, the endorsements or become a cultural icon quite like the suave Swiss superstar.
For most of his career, Federer seemed to glide around the court rather than scamper, his locks flowing and bouncing above his headband, while his outrageously aesthetic one-handed backhanded 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 slams titles held by Pete Sampras, then became the first to reach the landmark 20.
While Nadal and Djokovic may have now surpassed his grand slam total, the epic battles Federer had with these two players during his career only further added to his legacy.
On another day, the three matches that preceded Federer’s final goodbye may have been noteworthy in themselves – Muray versus Alex De Minaur was a particularly engrossing encounter – but today felt like warmups for the main event.
By the end of the second set of Murray’s match against De Minaur – which the Australian won in a third-set match tie break to earn Team World’s first point of the day – Federer had changed into his shorts and headband in the Team Europe dugout and looked ready to take to the court, only adding to the anticipation that had been steadily building inside the arena.
In De Minaur’s on-court interview after the match, he mentioned how he would be cheering on Team World against Nadal and Federer, resulting in the 23-year-old being roundly booed by a crowd that then burst into laughter.
Man of the moment
When Federer’s name was finally announced as he made his way onto the court, the noise of the crowd was so deafening that it drowned out the announcer’s voice entirely before he could finish introducing the Swiss and his doubles partner Nadal.
The 41-year-old was met with another booming cheer when having his accomplishments read out during the warmups, but the loudest roar came when Federer punched away a volley to give him and Nadal their first point of the match.
For most of the opening exchanges, there was still a zip in Federer’s shots as he carried himself with his trademark grace around the court, but when chasing a dropshot from Tiafoe 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 has undergone. In fact, as he continued to show a remarkable touch – at the net in particular – it’s likely most in the capacity crowd inside the O2 Arena were wondering why he was retiring at all.
One moment in particular drew shocked gasps from the crowd when the big screens showed the replays. While chasing down a short ball, Federer squeezed his forehand through the tiny gap between the net and the post.
It may have lost them the point, as the ball passed under the top of the net, but even in the final game of his career Federer was producing moments most had never seen on a tennis court before.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there still seemed to be plenty of magic left in what many viewers throughout his career have 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 had clearly misheard the plan for the upcoming point and had to walk back over to his partner for another debrief, resulting in the Swiss sheepishly holding his hands up to apologize.
But as the first set wore on, the mood on the court shifted as the relentless competitive nature that has made these two players such a force over the years finally began to come to the fore.
When the pair, affectionately dubbed ‘Fedal’ by fans, clinched the first set 6-4, the atmosphere inside the arena was on the brink of party mode.
But make no mistake, Sock and Tiafoe were by no means happy to roll over and allow Federer to walk off into the sunset with an easy victory. 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 scores tied at 5-5, as Nadal saved six break points – including one of back-to-back smashes from Federer that drew raucous cheers from the crowd – to put the pair on the brink of victory.
But Sock then held 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 the umpire that was loudly booed by the entire arena.
A brilliant tie break 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 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 was unable to secure the win didn’t matter too much and the emotion in his goodbye speech – barely able to get through it when speaking about the support his family had given him throughout his career – also reduced his doubles partner to tears.
“It feels like a celebration,” Federer said. “It’s exactly what I wanted at the end, exactly what I hoped for.”
CNN’s Ben Morse contributed to this report.