The stage is set, and the props are ready, for Friday night’s final act of the Roger Federer extravaganza. Andy Murray spoke for the whole of tennis when he said “I think it will be emotional.”
With a full house of more than 15,000 fans gathering at the O2 Arena on Thursday to watch Federer practice, this weekend’s Laver Cup has already been upgraded from fringe event to blockbuster status.
Indeed, one wonders which London-based match will attract more global interest this year: the Wimbledon final or Federer’s doubles farewell, which is now confirmed in its personnel.
Nadal is to partner Federer, as expected, while the American duo of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock make up the opposition. Asked about the challenge on Thursday, Tiafoe quipped “I'm just excited to play two up-and-comers.”
Even Nadal sounded nervous, having flown in as late as possible because of the delicate condition of his heavily pregnant wife Maria Francisca Perello.
“Gonna be difficult to handle everything,” said Nadal, “especially for Roger, without a doubt. For me too. One of the most important players, if not most important player in my tennis career, is leaving, no?”
Among the World team – who are anxious not to be cast as the villains of the piece on Friday – one phrase keeps resurfacing. When they find themselves instinctively referring to Federer’s “last dance”, they are echoing Michael Jordan’s run to the 1998 NBA Championships, which bequeathed a hit Netflix documentary under that same name.
The comparison – like everything else this weekend – is a bittersweet one. While it accurately reflects Federer’s standing among the ultimate sporting pantheon (Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Usain Bolt, you know the drill) it also draws attention to the chief weakness of the coming weekend. The unavoidable truth that there’s nothing significant to play for.
In an ideal world, Federer would have loved to go out fighting for his sporting life at a major tournament – just as Serena Williams did when she saved five match points in a tumultuous finale against Alja Tomljanovic at the recent US Open. Instead, he is pushing his ruined knee through what is effectively a doubles exhibition.
Still, at least Federer’s long goodbye has provided the fifth edition of the Laver Cup with a purpose it has hitherto lacked. And the O2 Arena’s low-stakes environment provides the perfect setting for a man whose 41-year-old body has finally broken down. The fact that Federer founded this event himself, in 2017, suggests that he can add “seeing the future” to his lengthy list of accomplishments.
Backstage, the Laver Cup’s social-media team are revelling in the presence of the so-called Big Four, who are combining on the European team for the first time. Even before the tournament begins, we have already seen them sharing a court for a doubles knockabout, piling into the Tower of London for a smart private dinner, and discussing local architecture on a walk along the South Bank.
“What happened to it?” asks Murray in one short video, looking up at the pointy tip of The Shard. “That’s how it is. It’s like a broken glass,” replies Federer. Even now that these multi-millionaires have reached their mid-30s, he still feels like Dad. As if to underline the point, Novak Djokovic, the eternal younger brother, then pipes up gleefully from the sidelines: “Andy, he’s giving you lessons about London!”
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Murray is in exalted company here. A decade ago, he was earning his place among the big boys at the majors, reaching at least the semi-finals nine times in the space of ten slams. Now, he has been left way back in the rear-view mirror by the other three, as they amassed the baffling combined tally of 63 major titles.
But Federer still clearly considers Murray a worthy member of the gang. So it is that he has been granted the support slot on Friday night, playing singles at 7pm against Australia’s Alex de Minaur before the evening’s main event gets underway.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Murray commended Federer for the typically meticulous scripting of his own exit. “The way Roger has gone about it,” Murray said, “he seems to get a lot of things right. That is something we can all learn from as well.
“There is a lot of emotions going around with all of the players,” Murray added. “I’d imagine for Roger it will be unbelievably difficult, but for a lot of the players it will be tough. Especially [because] we are all proud and excited to be part of this team and to be here for his last match. It feels right that this is the way that he will finish his career.”