London | Bidding goodbye to Federer

In a nation mourning a monarch, on a black court, the symbolism of the setting for Roger Federer’s farewell to tennis is unavoidable. A week which started with the State Funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in London is ending with a sport saying goodbye to one of its greatest ever players in the same city. It is not the end of a life, but there is certainly sadness at the closing of an era.

I’m not sure if I can handle it all. I’ll try. I have had some tougher moments as well in the past, being horribly nervous, all these years sometimes before matches. This one definitely feels a whole lot different. I’m super excited to have our team and not have to play against them in my last match Roger Federer

The impression is growing of 2 separate events taking place in parallel during this long weekend at the O2 Arena. The Laver Cup is being played over 3 days between teams representing Europe and the rest of the world. And then it is as if alongside it there is a “Fed Cup”, with the sole focus being on Roger’s retirement, speculated on for an extended period of time and now finally imminent.

Of course it was the International Tennis Federation’s world team competition for women with which the name Fed Cup was long associated, as the event developed from the Federation Cup into its current manifestation as the Billie Jean King Cup. But it feels fitting to resurrect it for these few days to describe the overwhelming interest generated by Federer’s career ending.

Although the Team Europe v Team World contest is named in honour of the finest player of a previous generation in Rod Laver, it is Federer himself who has been the main driving force behind the concept from its inauguration in 2017. And it has provided a suitable stage to celebrate his tennis for one last time, with the best of Roger’s contemporaries, plus Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as the respective team captains.

In fact London 2022 is the first time in the 5 editions of the Laver Cup that the big 3 of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have all appeared together, let alone the big 4 with the addition of Andy Murray, who is making his debut in the event. With such a stellar collection of tennis superstars, current and past, it seems like a fine setting for Federer to end his time on court at the age of 41.

Perhaps the true conclusion to the Swiss star’s competitive career was really at Wimbledon last year, when he lost to Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter finals 6-3 7-6(4) 6-0. Struggling with his injured knee, it was the 1st time that he had dropped a set to love at the All England Club. But that will remain as his final singles match, since he has accepted that he is only fit enough now to play one doubles rubber.

So he will depart the tennis arena at the conclusion of the 1st day of the 2022 Laver Cup on Friday night, having chosen to play his last Tour-level tennis partnered with Nadal. They will face Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe on what is bound to be an exceptionally emotional occasion. As Murray very aptly put it, if you have to finish, then this will not be a bad way to do so.

Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal - discussing tactics for their doubles match?

ulian Finney/Getty Images for Laver Cup

“Maybe it doesn’t feel the same way for Roger, but I think it feels right, seeing him and Rafa on the same side of the net together and finishing their careers as a team in this event with Bjorn on the side of the court, John McEnroe there, Rod Laver in the stands. It’s going to be a really cool way to end an incredible career. I have thought about it myself, but I don’t think there’s many better ways to go out than like this.”

Federer is already in advance finding the experience quite challenging and he admits that “I’m not sure if I can handle it all. I’ll try. I have had some tougher moments as well in the past, being horribly nervous, all these years sometimes before matches. This one definitely feels a whole lot different. I’m super excited to have our team and not have to play against them in my last match.

“Of course, it’s super special playing with Rafa. It feels really different, you know. Also just walking out on court and having the chance to play with the likes of Rafa or Novak, also in the past, has been an amazing experience for me. So to be able to do that one more time, I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. Like I said, I will try my very best. I hope to be good out there, and of course I will enjoy it, but it will be hard.”

Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pause during practice

Cameron Smith/Getty Images for Laver Cup

His final preparation categorically could not be improved upon, as he thrilled a capacity crowd at the O2 Arena for the Laver Cup Open Practice Day, taking to the court for 20 minutes to play 4 games with Nadal against Djokovic and Murray – even if the significance of the spectacle of the big 4 sharing a court may not have quite been grasped by entirely all of the invited schoolchildren and their exasperated teachers.

“It’s the most incredible practice atmosphere which I have ever experienced” confirmed an awe-struck Djokovic, amidst a cacophony of cheering on an afternoon arranged to benefit charities nominated by Katherine, Princess of Wales. And, in case extra emphasis on the man of the moment was necessary, he added: “It’s great to be on this court to celebrate Roger.”

Behind the scenes, Djokovic expanded further on how much he is cherishing this unusual week: “It is a different feeling from the feeling that we mostly experience in the individual tournaments. We don’t usually maybe interact as much with each other, have that social time off the court as much as we do here during this unique competition that is Laver Cup.

“I have had the honour to play once 4 years ago in Chicago, and I still have these memorable moments that I remember for a long time. Already these last couple of days have been memorable for all of us. We had a lot of laughs last night at the dinner, and I think that the atmosphere and the chemistry that has been created in this team is something that will help us do well and perform well on the court.

“But also to get to know each other I think on a different level than normally, as we don’t have a chance to do for individual tournaments… This is probably the most special moment that I guess we all individually and collectively experienced or will experience. Laver Cup is the only competition where we get a chance to be teammates and not rivals, with this being even more unique and special because of Roger’s last match.

“So the excitement is incredible. There are different generations right now present in our team. And most of us have watched and admired Roger’s success and achievements before coming on the Tour. Some later, some earlier. We will do our best to contribute to the team and a good performance, but at the same time marvel and celebrate his career, because he deserves it in a great way…

“It’s a huge privilege and honour to be on this team, considering what I have personally gone through on the court with Roger over the years. At the beginning of my career I was losing most of the matches with Roger and Rafa in the Grand Slams, and they have contributed a lot to the player I am today through figuring out how I can turn the tables. So I’m very grateful to be part of that era…

“Of course we always wanted to win against each other. We always wanted to be better than each other. But, on a personal level, of course it’s different. It’s a sad day for tennis, also for sport in general. But, you know, Roger’s legacy will live forever.”

Nadal too expressed similar sentiments as he admitted feeling profoundly moved by his involvement in the match which marks the departure of his greatest rival: “It’s a different kind of pressure. After all the amazing things that we shared together on and off court, to be part of this historic moment is going to be something amazing, and unforgettable for me. I’m super-excited.

“I hope I can play at a decent level, and hopefully together we can create a good moment… Of course to be on court having Roger next to me one more time will be something that I’m very looking forward. Just very happy for that… I saw him having success on TV, and then I was able to create an amazing rivalry with him, a friendly rivalry.

“It was not easy sometimes, because we were playing for such important things for our tennis careers, but at the same time we were able to understand that, at the end, personal relationships are sometimes more important than professional things. We were able to handle it I think in the proper way. So tomorrow is going to be a special thing. I think it will be a very difficult one.

“It’s going to be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. For me too. You know, at the end, one of the most important players, if not the most important, player in my tennis career, is leaving. At the end, to live this moment will be difficult. But of course I’m super-excited and grateful to play with him.

“I just think I’m going to try to do my best in every single way, to help to make this moment even more special… Well, I don’t need to listen to this news to know that the end is closer. You know, the normal cycle of life is this, no? Some people leave and others need to come. It’s nothing new. History repeats, always. Just this time it’s us.

“And in this particular case it’s probably one of the most, if not the most, important player in the history of this sport that is leaving after a super-great and super-long career. Some of us, we were able to share this long career together, some of us having a lot of success. It’s true that when the 1st is leaving, in your mind you miss something, no? In a personal way, it’s been very, very, very sad news and a tough day.”

Team Europe: (L-R) Novak Djokovic, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas during a press conference ahead of the Laver Cup

Julian Finney/Getty Images for Laver Cup

Nadal is understandably additionally emotional, having arrived in London later than the rest of the players, just a day before the first matches, since his wife is believed to be remaining under medical supervision in hospital as she approaches the end of a complicated pregnancy. It will not be a substantial surprise if Rafa leaves for home after playing the day 1 doubles with Roger.

Cameron Norrie spent the eve of the Laver Cup participating fully in Team Europe’s preparations, as an extra alternate, following on from the confirmation that Matteo Berrettini will replace Federer for Saturday and Sunday. If Norrie steps in for Nadal then it would extend the European side’s playing squad to 8, versus the world team’s 6, as if the format was not already sufficiently stacked against them.

Europe has been victorious in all 4 of the Laver Cup stagings so far, a year ago by the overwhelming score of 14-1. This year with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all involved, there is a difference between the two sides of 66-0 in terms of Grand Slam singles titles won by team members. Add in the emotion around Roger’s retirement, and the home side has to be the overwhelming pre-event favourites.

But that Federer farewell is looking like it will overshadow all the rest of the tennis to be played during the coming three days.



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