Roger Federer, admired by some, respected by all, drew a line under nearly 25 years of an exceptional tennis career on Saturday when he lost a farewell doubles match with his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, at the Laver Cup in London. The two champions were defeated by the American pair of Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe.
The debate over who is the best player in history is endless, but Roger Federer’s record of success, his brilliant play, his elegance and his charisma will remain the undisputed master of world tennis.
On Friday 23 September, in front of a packed house, the Swiss player played his last doubles match with Rafael Nadal.
A few minutes after the end of the match that ended his 25-year career, Roger Federer said he was “not sad” but “happy”, despite the emotion that overwhelmed him, particularly when he spoke of his family.
“We’re going to make it one way or another, right?” he said, with a tightness in his throat, to former player Jim Courier, who asked him on court and in front of the public about his first feelings as an ex-professional tennis player.
“I’m happy, I’m not sad”
“It’s been a wonderful day, I’ve told the guys, I’m happy, I’m not sad, it’s wonderful to be here,” he assured, despite his already bright eyes.
“I wasn’t so much stressed,” he said, even though, after a year and a half without playing and with a right knee that forced him to retire at 41, he feared “a calf strain or a blocked back during the match, so I’m really happy to have finished it, despite losing 6-4, 6-7 (2/7), 9-11, in doubles with his rival and friend Rafael Nadal, against Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe, for the annual Laver Cup, a match between Europe and the rest of the world, which he helped create.
Reflecting on his exceptional career, he said he would “do it all over again without changing a thing”.
“It should never have been like this, I just liked playing tennis and spending time with my friends. I never thought it would end here, it’s been a perfect run.”
Tribute to his wife
The hardest part for him was talking about his family in the stands.
“Do we really have to go through this?” he asked, before changing his mind, “no, I’m fine, I’m doing pretty well so far, I feel like, at least I can talk. In my visions, I couldn’t even speak,” he joked.
The Swiss paid tribute to his wife, Mirka, who he met 22 years ago and who has been “so supportive”.
“She could have stopped me a long, long time ago. But she didn’t, she let me go on and allowed me to go on, it was incredible, thank you,” he managed to slip out before being overcome by sobs.
“People followed tennis without loving tennis, to watch Federer”
Since announcing his retirement, “Pistol” Pete (Sampras), the Las Vegas Kid (Andre Agassi) and the Manacor Bull (Rafael Nadal) have bowed to the master.
“Hi Roger, it’s Pistol (…). When we first met, you were only 19 years old (…). We had a big battle on Centre Court at Wimbledon and you beat me in five sets,” recalled Sampras, whose public appearances have been extremely rare since he left the circuit in 2002, but who took to social media to salute the Swiss’ retirement.
“Your game and your spirit have taught us how beautiful the game of tennis can be (…). Thank you RF,” Agassi complimented.
“He is one of the most important players, if not the most important player, in my career,” said Nadal, who holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles (22), before playing doubles alongside him in the last match of the Swiss, whose record will remain stuck at 20 majors, surpassed also by Novak Djokovic (21).
But in the hearts of most people, he will remain number one. At Wimbledon, his favourite playground, where he won eight times, at the French Open, where the public was relieved to see him complete his collection of Grand Slams in 2009, and in all the tournaments where his fans supported him unconditionally.
Federer had all the attributes of the ideal champion. Above all, he had a game like no other: aesthetic, offensive, exciting.
“There are people who followed tennis without loving it, just to watch Federer,” said former Swiss number one Marc Rosset.
Their rivalry with Rafael Nadal has become a legend, and their friendship has never wavered.
For Nadal, “everything is perfect about him”
“He has a perfect serve, a perfect volley, a more than perfect forehand, a perfect backhand (one-handed); he is very fast, everything is perfect about him,” Nadal summed up.
Off the court, the Swiss is also a kind of ideal son-in-law: in love for more than twenty years with the same woman, Mirka Vavrinec, a former tennis player of Slovak origin whom he met at the Sydney Games in 2000, a caring father of four children (twins), involved in charity work, particularly in South Africa, his mother’s country of origin, the friend of Tiger Woods is almost unanimously approved.
Even among those he has bullied on the court. “I’d love to hate you, but you’re too nice,” Roddick told him after a Wimbledon final.
The Swiss has always liked to “give the image of a good person”, including by taking care of his communication during endless interview sessions, which he gives without complaint in the four languages he speaks (Swiss German, English, French and German).
His record of achievements is gigantic. In addition to the Grand Slam titles, he has won six Masters, a Davis Cup and an Olympic gold medal (in doubles with Stan Wawrinka), the singles gold being the only major trophy he lacks. In total, he won 103 ATP titles and spent 310 weeks at the top of the world rankings, a record that Djokovic has since dramatically increased to 373.
It is true that the talent of this boy born in Basel in 1981 was detected at an early stage. But this “diamond in the rough to be polished”, as he puts it, had to suppress a dilettante side and a tendency to swing his racket when things didn’t go his way.
Late maturity, exceptional longevity
For this reason, he had to wait until his sixth year on the circuit to lift his first major trophy, on the grass of Wimbledon in 2003, at almost 23 years of age.
This achievement in the tournament he cherishes most of all marked the beginning of a feast of Grand Slam titles: eleven – out of 16 possible – from 2004 to 2007. The competition at the time, led by Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, was crushed.
Things got tougher when Nadal and Djokovic came of age, but Federer continued to win and the legend was enriched by epic matches, such as the two Wimbledon finals in 2007 (won) and 2008 (lost) against the Spaniard. On the decline (temporarily) from 2011 onwards, he made a stunning comeback in 2017 and 2018, adding three Grand Slam titles to his collection and finishing with eight Wimbledons, six Australian Opens, five US Opens and one French Open.
Seemingly ordinary in stature (1.85m) but blessed with exceptional speed and stamina, he had the advantage of almost no injuries until he was over 35. He underwent his first operation, on a knee, in 2016, after hurting himself… while giving his daughters a bath.
With an unquenchable thirst for victory, he approached longevity records – his last title at the Australian Open made him the second-oldest Grand Slam winner behind Ken Rosewall – when his recalcitrant knee brought his fabulous career to an end at the age of 41, after more than 1,500 matches over 24 years.