Roger Federer played his final competitive match at the Laver Cup in London on Friday night in front of a capacity crowd, many of whom were virtually in tears at seeing their hero for the final time. Despite it being more an exhibition event than a truly competitive one, tickets for this night session were rumoured to be selling at £50,000 apiece.
The Swiss maestro has had three knee operations, none of which have been successful enough to allow him to continue to compete at the highest level. He chose to play alongside his old adversary on the court and good friend off it, Rafael Nadal, in a doubles match against the Americans, Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe.
One could see why he had opted out of playing singles – he was clearly too tentative to lunge for volleys or take quick sprints either forwards or sideways. This was a strange sight, since he has always been famed for his light and swift footwork.
It was also odd to see two renowned singles players on the same side of the court. It’s been extremely rare to see either of them playing doubles — and it showed. Despite holding 42 Grand Slam singles titles between them, they’ve both been off games with injuries and they both looked rusty and nervous. The only player on the court known for his doubles prowess was Sock, who holds four Slam doubles titles. Jack Sock really does live up to his name: he socks that ball and he enjoys slamming it at his opponents’ bodies. In fact, he knocked Roger over at one point with the sheer power of his strike. At least he hit him on the arm and not on that famously fragile knee.
The match went the distance, with Federer serving for it on the final tiebreak – you could sense the crowd willing on one final sublime service ace. But the fairy tale wasn’t to be, and the American duo ran out the winners in a tight match.
With Sock being the only doubles specialist, it was bound to be a scrappy affair. Yet when Roger had the ball on his racket, we still witnessed the magic and beauty. It must be so tough to have to retire when those skills are still intact, but it’s been a long time coming. This match was a perfect way of doing so, alongside his old friend Rafa and with the support of his team, which included the other member of the “big three”, Novak Djokovic, urging him on to do his best.
There was one extremely dodgy call which robbed Tiafoe of a point. Yet even his team captain, John McEnroe of “You cannot be serious” fame didn’t make too much of a fuss, which emphasised the light nature of the match and respect for the departing maestro. It would have been churlish to make a meal of a mere line call.
Remember Federer’s endless blubbing on winning Grand Slams in the early days? As he matured and went on to capture so many more, he managed to control his emotions. Here, though, he was unable to do so in this post-match celebration, sobbing in his family’s arms at the end, almost unable to speak.
Seeing that final distinctive beautiful backhand also brought tears to the eyes. They say that top sports players die twice and that’s how it felt.
Like Muhammed Ali in his prime, Roger Federer floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. John McEnroe called him “the Baryshnikov of tennis” and there was something balletic about his style. Beauty, imagination, sportsmanship, humour and grace – Roger had it all. Unlike some of his rivals , he was also sensible enough to stay away from controversy.
So, what next for the man who is adored around the globe? He hinted that he might go into commentating — which, with his intimate knowledge of the game, would seem to be a perfect way for the Federer lovefest to continue. He didn’t want to become a ghost, he said. A fitting path for the wonderful Roger Federer to take, as a living legend in the game he loves.