Roger Federer’s historic, awe-inspiring career came to an end on Friday night in London—in what will likely be the most-watched doubles tennis match of all time—as he and his partner Rafael Nadal (a.k.a. Team Europe) fell to the Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe (Team World) in the Laver Cup. (The annual Laver Cup tournament, co-founded in 2017 by Federer and his management company, TEAM8, pits the best European players against the best players from the rest of the world, with Team Europe coached by Björn Borg and Team World coached by John McEnroe.)
“We’ll get through this somehow,” a visibly emotional Federer said to the crowd after the match, and a million hugs and some tears from both his teammates and his opponents. “I didn’t want it to feel lonely out there,” he said a moment later, by way of paying tribute to his great rival Nadal. “I wanted this to feel like a celebration at the end, so thank you.”
Since Federer announced his intent to retire—after more than 1,500 matches over 24 years as a pro—a little more than a week ago and stated that this would be his last match, the tennis world has existed in a kind of fugue of mourning and appreciation. Which is understandable: Federer, now 41, was the first and, many would argue, the greatest of the so-called Big Three of tennis (along with Nadal and Novak Djokovic), widely considered the game’s best-ever players. Between them, they’ve won 63 Grand Slam tournaments over two decades, and dominated the sport’s top rankings.
But while Nadal is the (current) leader in Grand Slam titles, with 22, and while Djokovic, with 21, stands a good chance of passing him, it’s Federer, with his mere 20 Grand Slam titles (along with 103 titles on the men’s tour and 310 weeks ranked as the number-one player in the world), that usually garners the superlatives, the respect, and the admiration—for his game, his playing strokes, his demeanor and sportsmanship, and his entire career, both on and off the court.
Nobody moved with more seeming ease and speed; nobody else could produce virtually any shot on any side, from topspin forehands to knockout volleys and pinpoint serves. (In a moving tribute video directly after the match, McEnroe called Federer “a Baryshnikov of tennis.”) And—after some early wobbles as a temperamental teen—nobody treated his opponents, as well as the game of tennis and its storied history, with more respect. (His Roger Federer Foundation, which mainly focuses its efforts on early learning and education in both southern Africa and Switzerland, also speaks volumes.)