The way Roger Federer Waved Goodbye to Tennis in Style
Some distance from the court, a row of spectators is flying a chain of miniature Swiss flags. Over the course of his spectacular 24-year career, the white-on-red crosses have followed Roger Federer everywhere. So has his “RF” monogram, which can be found on baseball hats and T-shirts and is frequently supplemented into the term “perfect.” He is to many.
Another enormous Swiss flag carried aloft in the stands says “We love you Roger” and has a cartoon image of a goat. Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time, according to this audience of 17,500 spectators at the O2 Arena in London and millions across the world.
They—we—have flown across countries to see him play, win four Grand Slams, and reinvent a sometimes monotonous sport with creativity and grace. And we were there to witness the great event of his retirement from sport, with flags and hats, camera phones, and ready emotions.
The steep-sided bowl of the stadium was full, bathed in the blue and red light of the Laver Cup’s two team colors. The high-octane event—all dry ice and thumping techno; not quite Wimbledon Centre Court—is a three-day team format.
But, since Federer announced his retirement last week, every ticketholder has known that this was no longer about Team Europe or Team World. Roger had the night off. One more match, this time in doubles with Rafa Nadal. Federer’s own creation of a bow out.
Apparently, nobody had told Andy Murray. That other great tennis player was ultimately defeated in the first singles tie of the evening, approximately 10 p.m., three hours after the official start time, by the Australian Alex de Minaur, representing Team World.
Murray’s matches these days are frequently dragged out, and the audience seemed antsy. We were waiting for history to happen. The superfans, some of whom having allegedly spent up to $25,000 for tickets on resale sites, demanded their rightful place.
Federer had been on the Team Europe bench all evening, among a supergroup of international players like Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, cheering on the Brit. Federer was a part in the establishment of the Laver Cup, and he serves as a manager as well as a participant.
But we came to see him with a racquet in his hand, not on the sidelines. He, too, was aware of the significance of the occasion. “I relished lacing my shoes one more time,” he stated afterwards of those final seconds before the game.
The audience was already on its feet as Federer and Nadal raced onto court late in the evening. A exciting scream was followed by a yell and then a roar. A dense forest of cell phones. Robert Federer, Alexander Zverev, Stefan Edberg, and Rod Laver are in the lead.
As the decibels dropped and old opponents and friends warmed up their slices and smashes, one began to wonder: How will the 41-year-old perform? Will his surgically repaired knee give way after one extended forehand? Will his responses be severely reduced after 14 months away from the sport?
Of course, it was never going to end in pathos, even if the American combination of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock (both great doubles players) eventually outplayed the elder guys. Federer’s physical invincibility had worn off, but his touch remained.
The Fed serve—that most fluid of arabesques, his left hand aiming at the flawlessly flung ball—was as devastating as ever after a few nervous minutes. Their combined ability was spectacular when Rafa unleashed the deep topspin, followed up by Federer’s angled volley to the net.
The weight of the occasion threatened to overpower the contest for two hours. There was a roar every time Roger’s racquet touched the ball, but there were also moments when the stadium fell motionless, soaking in the last minutes of Federer Time, interrupted only by a single voice saying, “Thank you, Roger!” “Thank you, Master!” he said seconds later.
Call it a melodramatic fan moment, but it fits with what was to come on the court. After being defeated in a tiebreak, Federer came to the net to shake hands for the final time in his professional career. Then the tears flowed. From Nadal, who sat with his palm over his mouth, and practically every other eye in the stadium, but most notably from the Swiss himself. As Jim Courier began the anticipated on-court interview, he could hardly keep his cool.
“I didn’t want today to be lonely,” he stated of his retirement date, “I wanted it to feel like a celebration, and it is.” But he burst into tears as he thanked his wife, Mirka, who stood in the throng with their four children.
And what about the spectators, the supporters who have been Federer’s home team for more than two decades, wherever he has played in the world?
“Love you all, it’s been an incredible ride,” he added, raising his palm to the hundreds bathed in the blue-and-red light. “Thank you very much.”