In the months leading up to the Laver Cup in London, rumours were swirling regarding Federer’s fitness and ability to compete. Swiss media had reported his knee was failing him and, in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be playing in London, his long-mooted comeback event that he and his agent, Tony Godsick, created six years ago.
There were even concerns that other members of the Big 4 and his long-time rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would soon withdraw due to injury.
Yet as the event drew closer there was no official word out of the Federer camp nor from the event itself.
Then, on 15 September 2022, one week prior to the Laver Cup came the video that shocked the sporting world as the beloved Federer announced his retirement in an eloquent and heartfelt monologue filled with gratitude and love confirming that the Laver Cup would be his final professional event.
In announcing his decision to retire, Federer explained that his knee was no longer capable of consistently withstanding the demands he desired to place upon it.
“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 must recognise when it’s time to end my competitive career.”
In a matter of moments, social media went into overdrive with an outpouring of emotion. Fellow and former competitors were thanking and lauding their peer and hero. Fans too.
Whatever tickets were available for re-sale sold instantly and last-minute requests for media accreditation at the Laver Cup came piling in. This was not an event to miss.
Nadal and Djokovic subsequently confirmed their attendance ensuring that Team Europe would possess the entire Big 4 and, perhaps, the best sporting team ever assembled (at least on paper) with 66 grand slams between the team of six. 77 if you include captain Bjorn Borg.
Arriving at the Laver Cup felt surreal. The week since Federer’s announcement was filled with tributes to Federer and speculation as to whether he would participate in both singles and doubles given his troublesome knee.
While he had largely been absent from the tour for the majority of the last three years with injury, it was a different feeling knowing that this would be the last time he’d grace the court professionally.
Such was the excitement and nervousness surrounding Federer’s announcement, not a hand was raised in his pre-tournament media conference when the floor was opened for questions.
“That’s it?” Roger quickly quipped with a chuckle.
That quickly changed.
Unsurprisingly, when reflecting on his retirement video, Federer considered his retirement bittersweet.
“The bitterness, you always want to play forever. I love being out on court, I love playing against the guys, I love traveling. I never really felt like it was that hard for me to do, of winning, learn from losing, it was all perfect. I love my career from every angle. That's the bitter part.
“The sweet part was that I know everybody has to do it at one point. Everybody has to leave the game. It's been a great, great journey. For that, I'm really grateful, yeah” Federer said.
Federer also confirmed he would only be playing doubles in this year’s event despite the rules requiring each participant to play one singles match across the first two days.
After consulting team captain, Bjorn Borg, Laver Cup organisers, and his teammates, the decision was made for Federer to play doubles on the Friday, retire, and have Matteo Berrettini be substituted into Team Europe.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the same decision had been made with Nadal and alternate Cameron Norrie. However, such was Nadal’s class that neither he nor Team Europe revealed their secret plan until after Federer’s swansong.
On the official open day, Federer was accompanied on court for a Team Europe doubles practice session with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray with over 13,000 fans in attendance.
Tournament organisers seized the opportunity to put the Big 4 on court together despite the fact Djokovic and Murray weren’t going to be teaming up with both of them partnering Matteo Berrettini on days two and three respectively.
Federer’s every move and smile was greeted by screaming fans.
“We love you, Roger” was repeatedly shouted and followed by approving applause.
Prior to the commencement of each session, members of Team World and Team Europe (including captains and vice captains) would be presented to the crowd one by one as they walked onto the court with their career achievements announced.
Without fail, each time this ceremonial entrance played out, what would start as a loud cheer for Team World captain John McEnroe, would end with a boisterous standing ovation for Federer as the last member of Team Europe.
By the time Friday evening arrived, the O2 was rocking after Team Europe skipped out to a 2-0 lead and Federer fans poured into the stadium.
Hometown favourite Andy Murray was about to take the court against Australian Alex de Minaur in a do-or-die match for Team World before Federer and Nadal would team up against the American duo of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock. Strangely, and perhaps predictably, there was comparatively little buzz for what might be considered the evenings entrée; even with Sir Andy’s presence.
Murray and de Minaur went to war with the Australian prevailing in over two and a half hours in a crucial win for Team World.
While the pair had earned the crowd’s affection during their gruelling battle, de Minaur quickly put the pro-Team Europe crowd offside earning light-hearted jeers in his on-court interview with Tim Henman after remarking “I was able to get a win for Team World and hopefully we can get another one in the doubles.”
The stage was set. This wasn’t to be an ordinary match. This was Roger’s farewell, first, second, and third.
Upon their welcome, Nadal and Federer were received how one imagines the Beatles were greeted; with unadulterated adoration and affection. Whatever Team Europe and Team World divide was present in the crowd for the earlier matches had, for the most part, disappeared.
Continental division was replaced with love and respect.
Federer was smiling. Nadal too. However, these two are ultra-competitive beasts. Despite the occasion, they still came to win for their team.
Meanwhile, Team World and their supporting bench were locked in and ready to play the underdog.
Nadal opened proceedings and it didn’t take long for Federer to get involved. On the second point of the match, Federer picked off a cross-court Tiafoe forehand and put his forehand volley past Sock.
The roof nearly blew off.
As the match went on there were some trademark Federer-isms. The serve looked sharp. So did his net play. At least for a man without a competitive match in fifteen months.
Granted, there was some rust and perhaps even some moments of hesitancy or nervousness. But these were mere blips on the radar for the crowd was united in its understanding that it was simply a treasure to witness Roger Federer do his thing one last time.
Federer’s last point was played receiving the Jack Sock serve. Three top-spin backhands preceded an off-forehand and a Jack Sock winner down the line ended Roger’s career.
But that’s merely an aside. The crowd again rose on their feet and thanked the Swiss great for his glittering 25-year career. A well-deserved standing ovation indeed.
Some argued that the Team World boys should’ve let Roger win in his last match. Such suggestions are nonsensical. The animal inside Federer surely would’ve resented such an offering.
What followed was an interview with Jim Courier and an unexpected Ellie Goulding musical appearance.
Federer thanked his fans, family, friends, teammates, rivals, and idols. More importantly, the fans thanked him.
Perhaps one of the more poignant impressions left on this writer was Federer’s gratitude. Notwithstanding his success, so often Federer’s matches haven’t gone his way. For all his wins he’s lost over 250 times. Including in grand slam finals from seemingly unlosable positions.
Yet, Federer has a way of making you feel that everything went perfectly. Even when it didn’t.
Vision of Federer grasping Nadal’s hand as the pair sat in tears went viral. As did that of Mirka consoling her husband and thanking each of his teammates individually.
In his final act as a professional player, Federer and Nadal faced the media. Together they reminisced on their careers and reflected, as best they could, on what Nadal described as “a super difficult and emotional” day.
“For me, [it has been a] huge honour to be a part of this amazing moment of the history of our sport, and at the same time a lot of years sharing a lot of things together” Nadal said.
“When Roger leaves the tour, yeah, an important part of my life is leaving too because all the moments that he have been next or in front me in important moments of my life. So have been emotional see the family, see all the people.”
Witnessing Federer in this moment, he appeared genuinely content and at peace. He’d barely closed the book on his enormous chapter, yet he was introspective and calm as he revealed he didn’t trust himself not to break down while saying goodbye.
“Well, this is the part I was extremely worried about, is taking the microphone. All I told Tony was I want to be able to have an evening where I do not have to take the mic.
“Maybe you think it's logical that I have to take the mic. In my mind I don't, just because I know how impossible I am on the mic when I am emotional, because I had it many times before.
“But I was able to remind myself always on the court again how wonderful this is. This is not the end-end, you know, life goes on. I'm healthy, I'm happy, everything's great, and this is just a moment in time, you know.
“This is obviously supposed to be like this. So it's okay, and this is how I was able to always get a
second wind, and like really able to at least say everything I have wanted, I believe. I was able to get to all those places.
“It was wonderful.”
And that was that. It seems as quickly as he arrived that he’s now retired.
A truly unforgettable occasion.