Roger Federer Has Just Played His Last Match as a Professional
Roger Federer’s historic, awe-inspiring career came to an end on Friday night in London—in what will likely be the most-watched doubles tennis match of all time—as he and his partner Rafael Nadal (a.k.a. Team Europe) fell to the Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe (Team World) in the Laver Cup. (The annual Laver Cup tournament, co-founded in 2017 by Federer and his management company, TEAM8, pits the best European players against the best players from the rest of the world, with Team Europe coached by Björn Borg and Team World coached by John McEnroe.)
“We’ll get through this somehow,” a visibly emotional Federer said to the crowd after the match, and a million hugs and some tears from both his teammates and his opponents. “I didn’t want it to feel lonely out there,” he said a moment later, by way of paying tribute to his great rival Nadal. “I wanted this to feel like a celebration at the end, so thank you.”
Since Federer announced his intent to retire—after more than 1,500 matches over 24 years as a pro—a little more than a week ago and stated that this would be his last match, the tennis world has existed in a kind of fugue of mourning and appreciation. Which is understandable: Federer, now 41, was the first and, many would argue, the greatest of the so-called Big Three of tennis (along with Nadal and Novak Djokovic), widely considered the game’s best-ever players. Between them, they’ve won 63 Grand Slam tournaments over two decades, and dominated the sport’s top rankings.
But while Nadal is the (current) leader in Grand Slam titles, with 22, and while Djokovic, with 21, stands a good chance of passing him, it’s Federer, with his mere 20 Grand Slam titles (along with 103 titles on the men’s tour and 310 weeks ranked as the number-one player in the world), that usually garners the superlatives, the respect, and the admiration—for his game, his playing strokes, his demeanor and sportsmanship, and his entire career, both on and off the court.
Nobody moved with more seeming ease and speed; nobody else could produce virtually any shot on any side, from topspin forehands to knockout volleys and pinpoint serves. (In a moving tribute video directly after the match, McEnroe called Federer “a Baryshnikov of tennis.”) And—after some early wobbles as a temperamental teen—nobody treated his opponents, as well as the game of tennis and its storied history, with more respect. (His Roger Federer Foundation, which mainly focuses its efforts on early learning and education in both southern Africa and Switzerland, also speaks volumes.)
Tennis pros, both active and retired, and fans flooded London’s O2 Arena for the event—we’ll have a full report on the scene for you tomorrow. And if they couldn’t be there in person, virtually everybody in the tennis world tuned in from wherever they were to watch history being made. Carlos Alcaraz tweeted, simply, “Who’s watching Laver Cup?” and then, mere minutes later, posted three sobbing emojis. Iga Swiatek, the world number-one on the women’s side, was forced to consider her priorities—and it wasn’t even close. “I have a practice in the morning,” she tweeted, “but sleep needs to wait tonight.”
The match itself featured everything from the ridiculous (Federer leaping in to take a killer forehand that, by all rights, was Nadal’s to handle—the two had a good laugh about it immediately afterward) to the sublime (lengthy rapid-fire tête-à-têtes involving rocket volleys, blistering inside-out forehands, and looping topspin lobs, with the occasional net-cord mishap thrown in for good measure). And while the humor and the bonhomie was never lacking, this wasn’t an exhibition: Tiafoe and Sock made it quite clear before the match that they would be playing for keeps and pulling no punches. What looked, deep in the second set, to be a somewhat shocking straight-set victory for Rafa and Federer and Team Europe turned out to require a rare match tie-break (a so-called Laver Breaker), which was neck-and-neck throughout, to the thrill of the crowd. (At 7-7 in that break, Tiafoe even beaned Federer with a 98-mph forehand—which was fair game—and aimed square at Nadal to set up the match point that quickly resulted in the win for Team World, 4-6, 7-6.) Just in case anybody is keeping actual score of the Laver Cup proceedings amidst all this: It’s Team Europe 2, Team World 2.
An intensely emotional Federer thanked the crowd, and his fans, and his family, with his customary grace. “It’s been a perfect journey,” he said, tearfully. “I’d do it all over again.”
Thanks, Roger. It’s been a privilege to witness.