Roger Federer teams up with Rafael Nadal in the last game, he falls in double at the Laver Cup

LONDON – This day, this match, obviously had to come for Roger Federer and tennis, just as it inevitably must come for every athlete in every sport.

Federer said goodbye Friday night with one final game before retiring at the age of 41 after a superlative career that included 20 Grand Slam titles and the role of a statesman. He ended his days as a professional player with a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 11-9 doubles defeat alongside his longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.

The winners, the stats and the score didn’t matter and they were all absolutely out of place. The occasion, after all, was about the farewell itself. Or rather, the farewells: Federer to tennis, to the fans, to his competitors and colleagues. And, of course, the farewell of each of those entities to Federer.

“It was a perfect trip,” Federer said. “I’d do it all over again.”

When the match, and with it his time in professional tennis, ended, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer started to cry. As cascades of applause and screams of affection came from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. Then he said “Thank you”, while he cheered back at the spectators who had sung: “Come on, Roger! Come on!” during the closing moments of a match that lasted more than two hours and ended around 12:30

The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day team event, founded by his management company, would be his last event before retirement, then made it clear that the doubles release would be his last match. . His surgically repaired right knee – the last of three surgeries occurred shortly after a quarter-final defeat at Wimbledon in July 2021, which will become his last official singles match – is unable to allow him to continue.

“For me, only personally, [it was] sad at first, when I came to the conclusion it was the best decision, “Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions when he realized it was time to go.” At first I held out, then he fought. But I could feel the pain. “

A couple of hours before Friday’s game, Federer tweeted: “I’ve done it thousands of times, but this one is different. Thanks to everyone who comes tonight.”

He said he wanted this to feel more like a party than a funeral, and the crowd obeyed, rising to a loud, long standing ovation as Federer and Nadal – each wearing a white bandana, blue shirt, and white shorts – emerged together from. a tunnel leading to the black pitch for the final match of Day 1 at the O2 Arena. Spectators stood for nearly 10 minutes during the pre-match warm-up, holding up their phone cameras to capture the moment.

They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, others with homemade signs, and were heard with a wall of sound when Federer scored a winning volley on the second spot of the match. Similar reactions came simply to the announcement of the chair referee before the third “Roger Federer on serve” game, and again when he ended that game with a 117 mph serve winner.

Doubles requires a lot less movement and court coverage, of course, so the stress on the knee was limited on Friday. Federer showed touches of his old talent, sure, and of rust, as expected.

While his parents and wife sat in the front row behind a baseline, there were a couple of straight ahead that sailed several feet too many. There was also a forehand that slid right between Sock and Tiafoe and it looked too good to be true – and, it turned out, it was: the ball traveled through a gap under the net tape and then the point was taken away from Federer. and Nadal.

Although it was essentially a glorified performance, all four participants in the doubles played as if they wanted to win. This was clear when Sock jumped and screamed after a particularly formidable volley or when Tiafoe threw a couple of shots right on Federer and Nadal.

But the circumstances allowed moments of lightness.

Federer and Nadal were able to laugh after some confusion as to who should go get a ball on a lost spot. After Nadal somehow threw a net return shot around the post, only to barely land to the side, Tiafoe crossed to reach out congratulating him on the effort.

In the first set, the two greats of the game weren’t feeling well between points, so Federer went back from the net to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pointed his ear to signal to fans what the match was. problem .

Before Federer, the men’s score for most of the major tennis leagues was 14 by Pete Sampras. Federer surpassed him, amassing eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open and one at the French Open, setting a new standard that Nadal, now with 22, and Novak Djokovic, with 21, equaled, then surpassed, as part of a golden age for sport.

Federer’s substantial curriculum includes 310 weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a Davis Cup title and Olympic medals. Beyond elegance and effectiveness while holding a racquet, his character made Federer a tennis ambassador, someone whose immense popularity helped attract fans.

Surely there are those who would have found him particularly suitable to see Federer end up on the net by Nadal, often an enemy on the pitch but ultimately a friend off the pitch. Perhaps it could have taken place about 15 miles away at the All England Club’s Center Court, for example, or at Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, or at the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park, or even Arthur Ashe Stadium, the hub. of the US Open, the only Grand Slam tournament in which they have never faced each other, in any way.

Perhaps they could have provided everyone with one last installment of a head-to-head as memorable as any in their sport’s long history – or, indeed, any other.

Roger vs. Rafa – only one name is required each – belongs to McEnroe vs. Borg (coincidentally, the two Laver Cup captains, John and Bjorn), Evert vs. Navratilova, Sampras vs. Agassi, Ali vs. Frazier, Magic vs. Bird, Brady vs. Manning and so on.

Over the years, Federer and Nadal have showcased individual greatness and gripping contrasts in their 40 games, 14 in the Grand Slam tournaments, nine in the main finals: righty vs. southpaw, forward vs. grinder, seemingly effortless vs. relentless intensity.

Still, there was an unmistakable element of poetry in these two men challenging and elevating each other by performing as partners, slapping their palms and sharing smiles.

“Two of the ‘GOAT’ play together,” Sock said, using the popular acronym for “Greatest of All-Time”.

This farewell follows that of Serena Williams, owner of 23 major singles championships, at the US Open three weeks ago after a third round defeat. He leaves questions about the future of a game that he and she have dominated and surpassed for decades.

One key difference: Whenever Williams took to the field in New York, the looming question was how long her stay would last: a “win or stop” prospect. Friday WAS for Federer, regardless of the result.

“All players will miss him,” said Casper Ruud, who beat Sock in singles 6-4, 5-7, 10-7.

The other result, which left Team Europe and Team World at 2-2: Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 in a briefly interrupted match when an environmental protester set fire to part of the field and the own arm, and Alex de Minaur overtook Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7.

As they would start playing shortly after Murray’s defeat ended, Federer and Nadal first gave them some coaching advice, then watched some of that on TV together in an arena room, waiting their turn. When Federer and Nadal were in action, it was Djokovic’s turn to suggest strategic advice.

The last hurray came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 singles wins for Federer, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the era of the Open, which began in 1968.

At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005 to 2007. Extend it to 2010 and reached 18 of the 19 major finals.

More than those numbers, people will remember the powerful forehand, the one-handed backhand, the flawless footwork, the spectacular and effective serve and the desire to go to the net, the willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part. he is most proud of – unusual longevity.

“I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger,” Tiafoe said. “The way he played, the grace with which he did it and who he is as an individual.”

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