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Of course, this day, this match, had to come for Roger Federer and for tennis, just as it inevitably has to for every athlete in every sport.
ederer bowed out on friday night with his final match before heading into retirement at the age of 41 after an illustrious career that included 20 grand slam titles and a role as tennis statesman.
He played doubles alongside his rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.
“For me personally, it was sad at first when I came to the conclusion that it was the best decision,” Federer told The Associated Press this week about his emotions when he realized it was time to go. . “At first I kind of held it, then I fought with it. But I felt pain.”
As the players from both teams were introduced before the afternoon and evening Day 1 of the three-day team event at the O2 Arena, Federer was the last to emerge from the tunnel leading to the black court, wearing his team’s blue zip. jacket and black pants.
Loud enough for Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and others, the fans really let Federer hear their support and gratitude, standing up for long standing ovations just outside his entrances and raising their phone cameras to capture the moment.
A few hours before he was due to play, Federer tweeted: “I’ve done it a thousand times but this is different. Thank you to everyone who is coming tonight.”
When there were breaks in the action during the matches in front of him, Federer wandered into the stands and signed autograph after autograph—programs, tennis balls, anything the crowd threw his way.
“The crowd was excited,” Sock said after losing his opening singles match to two-time 2022 Grand Slam winner Casper Ruud 6-4, 5-7, 10-7 on Friday afternoon. “I can only imagine what it will be like. be like for the rest of the weekend. And of course tonight with… two ‘GOATS’ playing together.”
The second match was briefly interrupted when a protester from the environment made his way onto the court and set fire to part of the playing surface and an arm before being carried away by security.
“I’ve never had an incident like that on court,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 to give Team Europe a 2-0 lead.
Just before Ruud vs. Sock, Federer got up from the black couch just off the touchline and walked over to pat Ruud on the shoulder. Both Federer and 22-time major champion Nadal offered advice during the night’s singles match, in which Alex de Minaur outlasted Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7 to cut the World Team’s deficit to 2-1.
Since play began shortly after Murray’s loss ended, Federer and Nadal watched part of it together on television in a room in the arena, waiting for their turn.
Those lucky enough to have tickets came from all over, no distance too great, no expense too great.
“I have such mixed feelings about it,” said Indrani Maitra, a 49-year-old from India. “I’m really happy to catch his last game. But I’m really sad that it’s his last game.”
She came with her daughter Anushka Verma, a 19-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, for what they said was their first time seeing live tennis. Both wore blue hats for the occasion, Maitra’s with Federer’s “RF” logo and Verma’s with Nadal’s bullhorn logo.
There were lines of hundreds of people at the “Game, Set, Merch” shops inside and outside the venue. Jacob Benaion, a 61-year-old man from Brazil, said he waited more than an hour with his son, 32-year-old Moyses.
“I love tennis. My first favorite was Ivan Lendl. After that, Pete Sampras. And then Roger Federer. And Roger Federer is the best of them all,” said Benaion. “He’s a legend and helped tennis grow all over the world. He’s an ambassador for tennis.”
The bye follows that of Serena Williams, owner of 23 major singles championships, at the US Open three weeks ago after losing in the third round. It leaves questions about the future of the game he and she have dominated and transcended for decades.
One key difference: Every time Williams appeared in court in New York, the question loomed over how long her stay would last — a win-or-this-is-it prospect. Friday is for Federer, regardless of the result.
The Laver Cup, which is in its fifth edition, was founded by Federer’s management company and uses a completely different format from the standard tournament. A win for him and Nadal would not mean advancing to the next round.
Instead, Federer made it clear that his surgically repaired right knee – the last of three operations came shortly after losing in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in July 2021, which will end as his last official singles match – was not in a condition to allow him to continue. and will not compete beyond Friday.
“It will be wonderful to see Roger back on the court. Nobody really knows what to expect from him physically, where he’s at, but…we’re going to enjoy every minute of it,” Sock said. “Give him a big hug at the end, win or lose.”
Ruud said of Federer: “All the players will miss him.”
“Roger is a unicorn in our sport,” Tsitsipas said this week. “He has all my respect, all my appreciation for what he has brought to tennis today. It’s something that will certainly not be forgotten for thousands of years. He has this charisma and purity and aura about him that made him kind of unbeatable when he was on the court .”
Tiafoe’s take on Federer was similar: “I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger, the way he played and the grace he did it and who he is as an individual.”
Since Federer announced his plan to retire from playing at the Laver Cup on September 15, there have been similar views expressed by many inside and outside the sport.
The last hurrah comes after a total of 103 tournament-level titles in Federer’s substantial resume and 1,251 singles wins, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era that began in 1968. Federer’s records include being the oldest No. 1 in ATP Rankings history – returned to No. 1 in 2018 at age 36 – and most consecutive weeks there (His total number of weeks eclipsed by Djokovic).
At his peak from 2005-07, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight. Track it back to 2010 and he has reached 18 of 19 grand finals.
More than numbers, people will remember a strong forehand, one-handed backhand and flawless footwork, a spectacularly efficient serve and desire to reach the net, a willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part he’s most proud of – unusual longevity. . Then there is also his person outside the court.
It’s all part of why the truth on Friday was that the eventual winner of the Federer-Nadal vs. Tiafoe-Sock, the score, the stats—none of it mattered, it was so off. After all, the day was about saying goodbye itself. Or, better, farewell: Federer’s to tennis, to his fans, to his colleagues. And, of course, the farewell of each of these entities to Federer.