Roger Federer announced his pending retirement from professional tennis Thursday, ending an artistic 24-year trail of 20 men’s Grand Slam singles titles and 31 appearances in finals that stoked a global popularity that often made him seem more a citizen of Earth than just of Switzerland. He reached his decision at 41 by doing something rare for him: succumbing — to a year of quiet straining to regain elite form after a fourth knee surgery since 2016 came late last summer.
Addressing a message to “the fans who give the sport its life,” Federer said, “I’ve worked hard to return to full competitive form, but I also know my body’s capacities and limits — and its message to me lately has been clear. I am 41 years old. I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years. Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt. And now I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career.”
That end, he said, will come at the upcoming Laver Cup on Sept. 23-25 in London. He called that “my final ATP Tour event” and said, “I will play more tennis in the future, of course, but just not in Grand Slams or on the tour.”
He called it “a bittersweet decision, because I will miss everything the tour has given me, but at the same time, there is so much to celebrate. I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on Earth. I was given a special talent to play tennis, and I did it at a level that I never imagined, for much longer than I ever thought possible.”
That implausible duration began at age 16 — almost 17 — in July 1998 in Gstaad, Switzerland, with a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Lucas Arnold Ker of Argentina and ended at age 39 — almost 40 — in July 2021 at Wimbledon, with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0 loss to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland. In between, losses weren’t much the point; he won 103 tournaments, second in the history of the men’s game only to Jimmy Connors (109). He became the only player with all of the following (and more): two consecutive years winning three major titles (2006-2007 and he also won three in 2004), four consecutive years winning two major titles, 10 straight major finals, 23 straight major semifinals (and 46 all told) and 36 straight major quarterfinals (and 58 all told).
He became the only male player with eight Wimbledon titles, with that Centre Court his sanctuary even next to the Australian Open (six titles), the U.S. Open (five titles) and the French Open (one title). He played some of the sport’s most revered matches, including his five-set classic toppling of Pete Sampras in the 2001 Wimbledon fourth round at age 19, his five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final (widely considered the best match ever played), his five-set win over Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final that went 16-14 in the fifth (and pushed Federer past Sampras with a then-leading 15 major titles), his five-set win over Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final that marked a renaissance for Federer and his five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in a 13-12 fifth-set tiebreaker at 2019 Wimbledon.
It was at that Wimbledon, as Centre Court gave him unreserved cheers that had built to booming through so many years, that he made his last rare-air title bid. It involved his two eternal rivals. He defeated Nadal in a highbrow four-set semifinal and lost that fifth-set tiebreaker to Djokovic, who had fended off two match points nine games earlier. Toward those rivals and others, he said in his announcement, “We pushed each other, and together we took tennis to new levels.” When they began, Sampras led the way with 14 major titles, and by now, Nadal has 22, Djokovic 21 and Federer 20, with Djokovic’s number limited partly by his inability to play some tournaments given his decision to forgo vaccination for coronavirus.
“I wish this day would have never come,” Nadal wrote in a message on Twitter. “It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world. It’s been a pleasure but also an honor and privilege to share all these years with you, living so many amazing moments on and off the court.”
Following that excruciating loss to Djokovic, Federer made four more Grand Slam appearances, faring considerably in three: the 2019 U.S. Open quarterfinals, the 2020 Australian Open semifinals and the 2021 Wimbledon quarterfinals. He announced his latest knee surgery in late summer 2021, withdrawing from that U.S. Open in the process, then began a period of absence that rendered his retirement announcement unsurprising.
That absence followed a giant wealth of presence. In all his routine barges into the narrow ends of draws, he become a mainstay in front of the world’s eyes, which seemed to spot in him something beyond the wins, beyond the ambassadorship that saw him patiently handle decades of news conferences in three-part segments featuring three languages and beyond the sportsmanship that won him awards from his peers in 13 of the 14 seasons from 2004 to 2017.
They spoke often of a geometric beauty in his game until, over time, it became possible to spot the “RF” caps of his brand in subways from Seoul to Dubai to New York, among many other places. Early on, tennis commentator Mary Carillo referred to Federer’s style as “making soufflés out there.” Popular French player Fabrice Santoro, close to retirement at age 36 in 2009, looked back across a long career and said he had never imagined seeing anyone play tennis in the manner Federer played it. Longtime French player Richard Gasquet, in an interview with L’Equipe in 2021, pegged Federer as the utmost player ever because, whatever the numbers, “the aesthetics” and “the grace” made him “irreplaceable.” In a worldwide poll conducted in 2011 by the Reputation Institute, Federer ranked as the second-most-respected person in the world behind Nelson Mandela.
The son of a South African mother and Swiss father, Federer began at Tennis Club Old Boys in his native Basel, Switzerland, an unpretentious club amid tree-lined streets to which Federer’s mother, a member, brought her son, then aged 8 or 9, and said to director Madelein Barlocher: “I have Roger here. Could you train him?” In his retirement announcement, Federer referred to having been “a ball kid in my hometown of Basel” yet one with now a world of fans, to whom he said, “You will never know how much strength and belief you have given me.”
He spoke of playing in “more than 40 different countries,” called it “so deep and magical that it seems as if I’ve already lived a full lifetime,” and said, “Most of all, I have felt incredibly alive.”