It was after midnight in London when the final point of Roger Federer’s career was disputed. That this meant their final match ended in a heartbreaking defeat, in a decisive tiebreak, didn’t seem to matter. Federer cried shortly afterwards, not for the result, but for the people he was able to share the moment with. Rafael Nadal was soon crying beside him. In the end, there was hardly anyone who wasn’t.
For so many years, Federer has faced Nadal in the heat of battle, the intensity of their rivalry taking the sport to new heights. Upon leaving, 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 time and as the lump in Federer’s throat blocked his words until late at night at the O2 Arena, it did.
Federer wanted to put on a show in the final match of his career and provided the vision of two of the sport’s great rivals together on the same side of the net. An emotional contest with Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock, who represented Team World in the Laver Cup, didn’t end with the result many had hoped for before Federer’s final goodbye, but a historic night for tennis still ended in celebration.
“It was exactly as I had hoped,” Federer said as he joined 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 sparked the emotion. For more than two decades, he has typified much of what countless sportspeople and athletes have devoted countless hours of their lives to: greatness. The ending was much more personal, much more human.
Federer is now part of a sport in which he has achieved what was close to perfection. In his final match, and first appearance on the court in over a year, he set his expectations of being somewhat competitive. In straight sets and a thrilling tiebreak, he and Nadal achieved much more. Federer had a starting point and was a moment away from the perfect ending.
He’s going to miss the little things, he admitted this week: putting on his shoes for the last time before hitting the court, adjusting his bandana and the 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 throughout the day. He was forced to wait until after 10pm in London after Andy Murray’s long departure delayed the inevitable, giving him another hour of the life he will soon leave behind.
Federer and Nadal emerged as two and from the start took turns attacking from the net, working together. In the opening game, Federer’s first touch of a competitive tennis ball since last July was a directed volley, and Nadal followed up with his own punch. The pair pursued a short, quick game, narrowing the points and closing the court. There were, understandably, moments of rust, but Nadal seemed to step in when Federer was on the baseline.
Federer kept things simple, but he remained capable of the extraordinary, even if a passing winner than actually stuffed into a tennis-ball-sized hole in the net might not have counted as a cool kick. Federer’s serve is still one of the best. His subtle kicks and spins tricked Sock and, coupled with his quick hands at the net, provided a platform solid enough for him and Nadal to build on.
With the opening set tight and few chances appearing in the return game, Federer swung into action to smash with Tiafoe and Sock threatening. Nadal then opened the court wonderfully with an angled winner. Sensing opportunity, Federer found his forehand as Europa broke to take the set.
Sock and Tiafoe were determined opponents, brave to face and up to the task. They broke early in the second when Nadal pushed a forehand to the side and Federer, reaching into the net, was unable to keep a ball in play. Tiafoe’s delicious touch and faded volleys put the American duo ahead, while Federer and Nadal briefly fumbled at the back of the court.
Nadal responded with a backhand winner sliding around the posts that Federer would have been proud of. The wait helped the pair establish themselves again, and they managed to break Tiafoe’s serve weapon in the next game to equalize. Federer and Nadal fought hard for a moment that never came. Djokovic, sitting courtside, went up in wins and clinical volleys, which were several, but it was the American duo who took their threat into the second-set tiebreak and played at a more consistent level.
In the decisive tiebreak, Federer and Nadal opened the lead and the Swiss produced one of his best moments. An ace and a quick volley, taking Sock’s pass down the line, took the European team into a position where Federer was left with the ball in his hand at the starting point.
John McEnroe insisted his Team World team weren’t villains, but when Tiafoe forced Federer into the error net and then Sock passed him with the forehand winner on the line, the cruel twist was that they fulfilled their role. In the final moments, however, no one seemed to care. Federer, and the memories he leaves us, will last much longer.