It was one of the many touching moments ahead of the Laver Cup, as a scene of greatness was marked by reflection and gratitude. Roger Federer looked to his left and saw Rafael Nadal then he turned to his right, towards Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. He took in the memories of nearly two decades of battles and the historic rivalries they had shared and breathed, as if to let it all go. “It feels right that I’m going first,” Federer concluded.
For Federer, the clock is ticking towards the moment in which he will emerge onto the court for the final time, but it is a match he and his great rival Nadal will play together. Federer has been granted his wish and the greatest rivalry in tennis will see its final chapter play out with both players on the same doubles team. They will play Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night, with the American pair handed the unenviable task of facing Federer in his final match.
Before then, there was a chance to pause. “Tomorrow will be difficult to handle,” Nadal admitted. “The most important player in my tennis career is leaving.”
In what may have resembled the tennis equivalent of the last supper, or a meeting of the sport’s high council, there had perhaps never been such a collection of winners and champions on one table. Europe’s opponents in the Laver Cup, Team World, have described the task facing them as taking down “superheroes” and Federer’s retirement has elevated the tournament and brought an extraordinary moment.
With Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray either side of Team Europe captain Bjorn Bjorg, the 41-year-old’s departure from tennis has brought generations together. “To have the greatest player who ever played the game to be part of the Laver Cup…” Bjorg began, “I cannot feel better than to have all these players here.”
“It’s going to be special,” said Murray, who comes into his first Laver Cup at a historic time, and the retirement of Federer has naturally led him to contemplate how his own career may end. “I think it feels right seeing Roger and Rafa on the same side of the net, Bjorn on the side of the court, John McEnroe there, Rod Laver in the stands. I have thought about it myself but I can’t think of a better way like this.”
Federer admitted in his own press conference on Wednesday that he had feared retiring alone but instead he goes out joined by his rivals and with their memories of his greatest moments. For Nadal, the 2008 Wimbledon final, their iconic match that finished in near darkness, and the 2017 Australian Open final stood out, a match they both reached just weeks after they both believed their time at the top of the sport was running out. “I think these two moments for different situations are very, very special.”
Djokovic’s best memory was a match he lost: his first grand slam final appearance at the US Open, a straight sets defeat to Federer that set him on his way to becoming the player that would dominate the past decade. “We always wanted to win against each other, we always wanted to be better than each other,” Djokovic said. “On a personal level, of course it’s different. It’s a sad day for tennis.”
Further down the table, at risk of being overshadowed, was the younger generation of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and Casper Ruud, who grew up with the legend of Federer and the big three. Tsitsipas practised with Federer upon arriving in London and was surprised at his level, believing he could play on. ”I was like, Roger, are you sure you still want to do this?” he said.
Tsitsipas continued, speaking for the generation whose first memories of tennis would have been Federer, his dominance, and the style in which he achieved it. “He’s the reason I pursued a one-handed backhand, he’s the reason I pursued a professional career.” Berrettini, who will take Federer’s place following his final match in the doubles in what are the “biggest shoes to fill ever”, said he will be playing alongside his idols.
Between them all, they have won 66 grand slam titles, including every Wimbledon since 2002. They held the No 1 ranking between 2004 and 2022 but its collective era is coming to an end. As Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray practised together in front of packed stands of school children on Thursday, you hoped they understood the significance of the moment.
There has been much camaraderie off the court. The constraints of life on tour don’t usually allow such time outside of play, but those involved have made the most of it. Murray, who is making his Laver Cup debut in the fifth edition of the tournament, has been on the receiving end of most of it and was made to pick up the Europeans’ dinner bill.
Djokovic’s return has also been welcomed, even if there were some awkward moments as he was questioned upon his first appearance since winning Wimbledon two months ago. Since then he missed the US Open because of his vaccine decision and there was further questioning over whether he is prepared to do the same ahead of the Australian Open in January. However, Federer’s last match was unmissable.
There is another side to the story on the other side of the net. Team World are the perennial underdogs in the competition, losing all four previous tournaments and scoring just a single point last year. This time, they are not only faced by a team who are superior in all metrics but who also have the romance of Federer’s goodbye and the backing of the London crowd.
“These guys aren’t villains,” said their captain McEnroe. “They are opponents. This is an incredible moment for our sport. A celebration of what Roger has accomplished. Whether he wins or loses is beyond the point, so that opens the door for us to do our thing.”
It would be a daunting prospect but for the World team having a player with a peculiar amount of experience in the field. Federer has played five times in doubles across his previous appearances at the Laver Cup, and each time stood across the net from the American Sock – a former world No 8 in singles but a more accomplished doubles player.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play some combinations of these legends of the sport,” Sock said. “I’ll draw off some of the past matches I’ve had.” Sock played against Federer and Nadal in their only other doubles match together in 2017 and is joined by a player in US Open semi-finalist Tiafoe who thrives on the big stage. “I’m just excited to play two up-and-comers tomorrow,” Tiafoe joked. “But no, it’s going to be iconic to be part of that.”
Win or lose, the gratitude will remain following Federer’s last match, but the sense of finality will become clearer as well. “It’s the normal cycle of life, no?,” Nadal said. “Nothing new, history repeats always. Just this time it’s us, and in this particular case is probably one of the most if not the most important player in the history of this sport that is leaving.” Nadal will stand alongside Federer in his final match, but after that nothing will be the same.