Roger Federer fought back tears through watery eyes Friday after his final professional tennis match. But, with longtime rival and contemporary Rafael Nadal by his side for a 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 9-11 doubles loss to Americans Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock at the Laver Cup, he still managed to have plenty to say.
“It was never supposed to be that way. I was just happy to play tennis and spend time with my friends, really,” Federer said. “It’s been a perfect journey. I would do it all over again.”
Federer’s remarkable career appeared on track for a storybook ending through the first set of Friday’s match, the last of four at London’s O2 Arena during the first day of the Laver Cup.
Backed by Federer since its inception, the Laver Cup follows the sport’s four majors and pits players from Team Europe against Team World in a three-day, indoor hard court tournament intended to be tennis’s version of golf’s Ryder Cup.
Before taking the court Friday, Federer watched — and occasionally advised — British teammate Andy Murray in the day’s final singles match. Murray fell to Australian Alex de Minaur, whose win captured a crucial point and cut Team Europe’s lead to 2-1.
When Federer and Nadal took the court for their match, the crowd responded with a raucous standing ovation. Some attendees lifted signs that read, “We will miss you.”
Federer scored the first point of the match and the European duo quickly took the first game despite an opening double fault. Later in the first set, Federer and Nadal fought off the game’s first break point for a dramatic hold, then broke serve in the next game to secure one set to none lead.
They would gradually cede that momentum to Tiafoe and Sock, although Federer and Nadal took a 6-5 second-set lead after a 10-plus minute game in which the longtime rivals fought off three break points. Federer and Nadal surrendered the second-set tiebreaker then fell 11-9 in the third set.
Federer, who will be replaced by Italian Matteo Berrettini in the Laver Cup singles competition, last played a professional singles match July 2021 in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
He played through injuries and surgical rehab into the twilight of his career, but the announcement of the end came after a scan of his surgically repaired knee, which “was not what I was hoping for.” Federer felt he was left with no choice but to retire, and his announcement came Sept. 15, in a letter he posted with a video on social media.
“The last three years have been tough, to say the least,” he told BBC Breakfast. “I knew I was on very thin ice for the last year ever since I played Wimbledon. I tried to come back, but there was a limit to what I could do.
“And I stopped believing in it, to be honest.”
Now 41 years old, Federer leaves having accomplished a list of feats in more than 1,500 tour-level matches: 310 weeks as the world’s No. 1 player (including 237 weeks in a row), 103 ATP singles titles and, of course, 20 Grand Slam singles championships — trailing only Nadal’s 22 and Novak Djokovic’s 21.
After Friday’s match concluded, Federer hugged his coaches, teammates and opponents. He embraced a watery-eyed Nadal and later rested his head on Team World captain John McEnroe’s shoulder as they wrapped their arms around each other near the Team World bench.
An emotional Federer thanked supporters and opponents during his post-match comments, but when he was asked about his family, he hesitated.
“I’ve done okay, so far. I feel like I’m at least able to talk. In my vision, I was never able to talk, so I’m doing way better,” he said, before choking back tears as he thanked his family.
The loss appeared to hit Nadal harder than Federer, and Nadal subsequently pulled out of the competition the following day. Despite it, the Swiss star described the match as the perfect ending to his 24-year career.
“It does feel like a celebration to me,” he said. “I wanted to feel like this at the end and it’s exactly what I hoped for, so thank you.”