For one final time, Roger Federer will feel the knots in his stomach as he faces the long wait before a big match. It is not a feeling he will miss but at least it is one he will not have to do alone. Federer’s retirement from tennis is a historic moment for a sport he has helped define, but it will not be the lonely experience he once feared. Instead, at the O2 Arena in London, the city that has been the “most special place” of his career, the Laver Cup will host the scene of a sport coming together to bid farewell to perhaps its greatest champion.
It is fitting, and a career that has been defined by poise and grace will have a closing chapter that strikes the right balance between competition and commemoration. That does not mean his decision has been easy. The allure of a final Wimbledon appearance lingered in the distance, and the acceptance that his body could no longer comply with the physical and mental demands of one last injury comeback brought with it the hardest moments of his decision. Since facing the crossroads and taking the turn, though, it has been clear to him that it was the right one.
Federer explained his reasoning in the open letter announcing his retirement but his subsequent media appearances have provided further illumination. The 41-year-old understands his body’s limitations and the impact of playing a final singles match would take too much of a toll to be worth the risk. His defeat in July 2021 to Hubert Hurkacz in the Wimbledon quarter-finals will go down as the final singles match of his career, as well as the moment where reality dawned. “The last set was one of the worst hours of my career,” he admitted this week.
For Federer, whose career has been painted by success and records, as well as the beauty and elegance in which he achieved them, this could not have been the closing tone. The Laver Cup lacks the presence of a grand slam and the stage Serena Williams captured so wonderfully in her own goodbye at the US Open just weeks ago, but Federer has made it clear his career has been as much about people, about the interactions both on and off the court. He loved life on tour and it is why his journey lasted so long.
For that, the Laver Cup is a reminder of the lives he has touched. His long-time rivalry with Rafael Nadal, for example, elevated the sport and was always helped by the image of a battle between friends rather than enemies. Federer’s final match in the doubles will be played alongside Nadal and the player he competed against in some of his greatest matches could also share its final cycle. “I think it is a great message as well to not just tennis but sports and maybe even beyond,” Federer said.
Those lucky enough to witness his final farewell will rather take in the sweetness of his groundstrokes and the motion of a serve that delivered both class and efficiency. That Federer reached those levels after a start to his career that was initially erratic, often hot-headed, remains one of his greatest accomplishments. Federer retires at peace with his journey, at ease with his decision and without regret.
There will still be nerves. Federer has not played in over a year and set his expectations at being “somewhat competitive” ahead of his return to court. There will not be any talk of records that there may have been if Federer had taken to a grand slam arena for a final time. With Nadal on 22 titles and Djokovic on 21, his total has been passed but a fact that has been made clearer following Federer’s retirement is that his legacy will not be measured in tallies or numbers. “You don’t need all the records to be happy; I tell you that,” he said.
Billie Jean King called Federer the “champion’s champion” following his retirement, and the greatest of all time will be where he sits. At Wimbledon this summer, as the All England Club celebrated 100 years of Centre Court, the noise from the crowd rippled and rose like waves at the emergence of each former winner during their presentation. King, Bjorn Bjorg, Andy Murray, Venus Williams, Nadal and Novak Djokovic all received standing ovations but Federer’s reception blew them away. When he comes out to play his final match along the road at the O2 Arena, it will do so again.