Tennis great Roger Federer played his last match on the professional circuit, ending a career defined by shot-making wizardry, trophy-winning performances and clashes against elite rivals in a golden age for men’s tennis.
In a doubles match that ran from Friday night into Saturday, the Swiss player paired up with longtime opponent Rafael Nadal for his farewell. They lost 6-4, 6-7, 9-11 against American duo Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock, who won after a gruelling tiebreak to decide the victors. But this match was more important than the result.
“We’ll get through this somehow,” Federer said in tears after the match. “It has been a perfect journey and I would do it all over again.”
On the signature charcoal grey court of the Laver Cup, Federer reminded the world of the prowess that delighted fans and stupefied opponents in a career that is ending due to injuries. However, he also showed a lack of sharpness when he hit a return into the net to go a break down in the second set.
Federer and Nadal were urged on by their courtside teammates, with Serbia’s Novak Djokovic providing tactical advice between points. Fans at the O2 Arena in south-east London celebrated Federer’s every move, including an early shot that somehow squeezed through a gap between the net and the support.
Still, Federer and his Spanish rival-turned-teammate fought hard for Team Europe against the representatives of Team World in a tournament he helped devise as his sport’s answer to the Ryder Cup golf competition.
Federer and Nadal wept together as the curtain fell on one of sport’s greatest stories, a career of victories that by far outweighs the losing leave-taking. Longtime rivals lifted him into the air. He and his wife Mirka embraced as the crowd stood in tribute.
Although defeat had not been in the script, it was a night of celebration for two of the greatest — and most serious — competitors the sport has ever seen. When Nadal narrowly dodged a ball flying straight for his head, Federer guffawed, breaking three decades of calm on the court.
The build-up to Federer’s retirement match was compressed into an intense week. Demand for tickets soared. They were already sold out. Ticketless fans gathered in front of big screens outside the arena to watch Federer one last time, having queued earlier to catch a glimpse of practice.
Rather than hog the limelight, he shared the attention with his greatest competitors: Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. In the days leading up to the match, the “Big Four” practised together in what Djokovic called a “once in a lifetime experience”. That camaraderie extended to suiting up for dinner and posing against London’s illuminated Tower Bridge.
Roger Federer, left, and doubles partner Rafael Nadal of Team Europe congratulate Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe of Team World after their Laver Cup defeat © AFP via Getty Images
Federer is the first of the quartet to quit. The question now is how long the remaining members will continue. Serena Williams, winner of 23 slams, played what was probably her last match just weeks ago.
Such departures leave a vacuum that piles pressure on the next generation — including women’s number one Iga Świątek of Poland and top-ranked men’s player Carlos Alcaraz of Spain — to build their victories on court into the kind of wider fame that attracts new fans to tennis.
To emulate Federer is to turn the promise of youth into longevity. Aged 41, Federer’s decision to bow out in doubles rather than the gruelling isolation of singles play is just another indication of how more than 1,500 matches have taken a toll on his body.
It was his first match since losing in straight sets to Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 2021. Federer has not won a major since the Australian Open in 2018, although he came close at Wimbledon the following year when he failed to convert two match points against Djokovic.
Over the course of his career, Federer collected more than $130mn in prize money and added hundreds of millions more from lucrative sponsorship deals including with Rolex, Mercedes-Benz and Credit Suisse, their logos prominent in the arena on Friday.
Though his haul of 20 Grand Slams is no longer a record, he set new standards in men’s tennis by surpassing Pete Sampras’s old benchmark of 14 majors. Whereas the American champion had long retired when he watched Federer break his record at Wimbledon in 2009, Nadal and Djokovic did not wait for Federer to call it quits to pull ahead.
But some of the Swiss great’s records endure, including an unbeaten 237 consecutive weeks as men’s world number one. He’s also the oldest man to top the rankings. No man has won more Wimbledon titles than Federer, who triumphed there eight times. Federer, who turned professional in 1998, never dropped out of a match because of injury, fatigue or any other reason.
No matter what the record books say, Federer’s final match was a reminder that artistry cannot be fully captured by statistics.