This article is the cover story for the November/December 2022 edition of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital edition.
In one of the most emotional sports scenes we have seen in quite some time, Roger Federer closed the curtain on his professional tennis career at the Laver Cup in London. There he sat, next to his good friend and rival Rafael Nadal as the nearly 18,000 fans inside the O2 Arena, as well as both competing teams, gave him a tribute that left both he and Nadal in tears.
“I’m a sensitive person, when you see someone you appreciate saying goodbye, it’s hard not to get emotional,” said Nadal. “It got a little out of hand, and the worst thing is that when I went to the dressing room it happened again. It was difficult for it not to happen because of everything that was experienced that night.”
Federer’s final professional match was in doubles alongside Nadal competing for Team Europe in the annual exhibition event that is the Laver Cup. They would fall to the American duo Frances Tiafoe & Jack Sock of Team World, but the match was much more significant than the final score.
“I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time. The match was great. I couldn’t be happier, it’s been wonderful,” said Federer. “And, of course, playing with Rafa on the same team and having the guys—everybody here, all the legends—thank you.”
To have Federer and Nadal compete alongside one another was a fitting conclusion to the pair’s tennis story together, as their rivalry become a central part of the sport, and helped propel it forward for nearly two decades. Their contrasting styles made for some of the most compelling sporting events, with Nadal’s relentless, physical style juxtaposed with Federer’s grace, seemingly moving on the tennis court as if he was running on a cloud.
You can’t tell the story of Nadal’s career without mentioning Federer, and vice versa, so it made sense to see how emotional the two were as Federer said his goodbyes.
“When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving too because all the moments he has been next to or in front of me in important moments of my life,” Nadal explained. “So it has been emotional to see the family, see all the people. Yeah, it’s difficult to describe, but an amazing moment.”
The tour now moves forward without Federer, and while that signifies the end of the Big Three era, his impact will be forever stamped in the game of tennis. Turning pro before the turn of the century, Federer competed at the highest level of the game for 24 years and racked up 103 singles titles and 20 major titles.
For much of the last 15 years, the Swiss Maestro has been regarded as the greatest male tennis player of all-time. That mantle has been passed around like a hot potato, being shuffled between himself, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and depending on who you ask, you may get three different answers as to who the greatest actually is.
While that debate will continue to linger, there will never be anyone like Federer, and he had many of his greatest career moments right here in New York.
He won five consecutive U.S. Open titles from 2004-2008, and he still looks back on his first triumph in the Big Apple as one of his fondest memories from his career.
“For me, the most special is the U.S. Open final against Lleyton Hewitt where I won 6-0, 7-6, 6-0,” he told Eurosport referring to the 2004 final. “It doesn’t happen like this in a Grand Slam finals that you take off like that for a set, have a little wobble in the second set, then you dominate in the third again. I showed the world that I was a deserving world number one, and against a guy I respect so much. I feel like if I look back, I would almost like to play that match again.”
His primary dominance came on the grass courts of the All-England Club in London, a surface and location that played host to his eight Wimbledon titles. Federer and Wimbledon just seemed like the perfect match, combining Federer’s ballerina-like grace with the charm and tradition of Wimbledon.
He won nearly half of his 20 majors there, and it was in fact the site of his last professional match prior to this year’s Laver Cup. Federer lost to Hubert Hurkacz in the quarterfinals of the 2021 Wimbledon championships, losing the final set in an unceremoniously 0-6 fashion. Just a couple of weeks prior, in Halle, Germany, was when Federer came to the realization that he probably wouldn’t be able to win Wimbledon, and started the process of him coming to the decision to retire.
“What I do remember is when I lost to Felix in Halle, I cried after the match and I knew I will not win Wimbledon,” he said in the lead-up to the 2022 Laver Cup. “So I was realistic about my chances at Wimbledon. Once you are in the moment, you try to convince yourself, to go for it at all costs. I knew that it was going to be really, really difficult to win Wimbledon.”
As that mindset crept in, and combined with persistent knee injuries, the process of considering retirement began, culminating with his official decision earlier this fall. He shared the message on social media, reading in part:
“As many of you know, the past three years have presented me with challenges in the form of injuries and surgeries. I’ve worked hard to return to full competitive form. But I also know my body’s capacities and limits, and its message to me lately has been clear. I am 41-years-old. I have played more than 1500 matches over 24 years. Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt, and now I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career.”
His message was met with responses on social media from tennis players, other professional athletes, celebrities, politicians, world leaders, and of course, countless fans of his. And at the Laver Cup in London, the same city that was the setting for so many of his greatest career achievements, Federer said goodbye to the sport of professional tennis, surrounded by some of his dearest friends, wife Mirka, and their four children. It was a time to honor his greatness, but also represented the ushering in of a new era, something Federer is excited for:
“I’ve always been a big supporter of the future of the game and I really think it’s been a great last few years,” he said. “The game always creates superstars and creates great stories, and so for me, I never worry about the game.”
He even referenced the beginning of his career, when the same sorts of concerns were being had about the future of the sport.
“People thought tennis was not so cool and great anymore once Sampras and Agassi retired. Here I was like, ‘I’m sorry, it’s kind of me also, with [Andy] Roddick and [Juan Carlos] Ferrero and [Lleyton] Hewitt especially. So for me to now look at the future, I know it’s incredibly bright and we don’t have to worry about it on either side, men or women. I think it’s going to be great and I will be following it closely of course.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.