Roger Federer brought the curtain down on his illustrious career in an emotion-packed Friday night session at London’s O2 Arena, finishing his final match at 25 minutes past midnight and leaving the court just before 1am amid a sea of love, tears and music in front of a capacity crowd.
The fairytale ending of a victory in his final match fell agonizingly short of coming true, Federer and his great friend and rival Rafael Nadal failing to convert a match point before losing a knife-edge doubles to Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe 4-6, 7-6(2) 11-9.
The result leaves Laver Cup 2022 poised at 2-2 at the end of the opening day, providing ample scope for drama over the weekend. But Friday’s story was all about Federer and the final chapter of a career that signs him off him as one of the greatest athletes in the history of sport, not just tennis.
He was given a standing ovation as he walked into the arena at just after 10pm after a two-and-a-half-hour singles between Andy Murray and Alex de Minaur, and as if to emphasize the enormity of the occasion, Tiafoe shook hands with Federer after the coin toss. It ended two-and-a-quarter hours later with Sock wrong-footing Nadal with a forehand up the alley, but from then on the American pair took a back seat as the show belonged to Federer.
He struggled through a tearful on-court interview with Jim Courier, though he insisted, “It’s been a wonderful day – I’m happy, not sad. I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time, I knew everything I did was going to be for the last time. I feared something would go wrong – my calf would go or my back would lock – but I made it through.”
With the 17,000-seater arena filled to capacity with the clock ticking past midnight, Federer was serenaded into retirement by the pop singer Ellie Goulding, who sang “Still falling for you” and “Fire and ice”.
The match itself was the perfect way for Federer to go out. Yes, a win would have been the icing on the cake, but everything was there to allow him to depart with flashes of the brilliance for which he has become known and loved, but with enough for everyone to see that his time really is up.
His game was still there. He served regularly above 120mph, his groundstrokes were in fine fettle (even if a few forehands landed well beyond their target), his reflexes were good enough for him to play some crisp volleys, and his positioning was textbook.
The one thing that was missing was his movement. He didn’t serve-and-volley once, he struggled running down short volleys and wide balls, and he rarely intercepted at the net. That left Nadal with the lion’s share of the work, and the fact that the legendary pair reached match point was largely down to Nadal’s willingness to run for everything (and who knows how fit Nadal really is?). With a chronic knee injury, it’s clear singles is now a step too far, even for such a consummate shotmaker as Federer.
His sublime technique, great hands and tennis brain allowed him to cover up the restricted mobility, and it almost worked. Three times he and Nadal were two points from victory – at 5-4 and 6-5 in the second set and 8-8 in the match tiebreak – and they moved to within a point of victory at 9-8. But Federer netted a reflex forehand, then conceded his next service point, before Sock finished the job after two hours and 14 minutes of absorbing play.
The match even featured an addition to the Federer showreel. In the third game he moved for a forehand down the line and threaded it through the tiny gap between the net post and the net. As the ball went under the tape and brushed the net, the point went to Team World, but few will worry about that – to the very end, Federer showed he had the ability to leave a crowd gaping in amazement at his ability.
The half hour after the match was an unashamed Federer-Fest. Both teams congratulated him twice, he struggled tearfully through his interview with Courier, and paid tribute to his family, in particular his wife Mirka, who he said “allowed me to play when she could so easily have asked me to stop”. As Goulding sang “Fire and ice”, Federer hugged Mirka, his four children, and his parents, before doing a lap of honor around a still almost-full stadium as the clock ticked towards 1am.
“It does feel like a celebration,” he told the crowd, “it’s what I wanted it to be, so thank you. It’s been a perfect journey, I’d do it all over again.” Most people in the tennis world would love to see it all over again.