Over the course of the past decade and more, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have done well no matter the circumstances. They have stared at each other in the finals of the biggest tournaments around the world and they have put their best foot forward time and again, even when the tension was at its most stifling. Their rivalry, with the insane popularity it created and the level it displayed, has played a fundamental role in the recent development of men’s tennis.
Still, nothing could have fully prepared them for the feelings they had on Friday. Strangely enough, the best moments of Federer’s career were often the worst of Nadal’s, having endured 40 games of the most tense, high-pressure battles against each other, but they were on the same side of the net together when they were beaten 4-6. 7-6 (2), 11-9 by Team World’s Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe at the Laver Cup. In the process, one of the greatest sports careers ever came to an end.
It was emotional from the start. Federer and Nadal came to the sold-out 17,500 capacity crowd at the O2 Arena to a standing ovation and after posing with their opponents at the net, Tiafoe made the point to shake Federer’s hand before starting.
From their team bench, Novak Djokovic pulled out his phone to record while supporting his two big rivals and during the first change of end, a tribute video was broadcast at the stadium with contributions from Nadal, Federer’s mother, Lynette and others.
After 14 months off playing after his 6-0 fourth-set defeat to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon and knee surgery that followed, even Federer wasn’t sure how his game would handle both the opportunity and the rust.
He did extremely well. Although he couldn’t move at full speed, his hands remained delicate and easy. His first touch of the evening was a solid forehand volley winner and it set the tone. After being neatly at the net for the entire first set and serving fairly well, it was Federer who put the first set on the line and sealed it with a winning forehand.
There was also much joy. After more than 1500 games, Federer still had time to finish with one final first, drilling a forehand between the small hole in the corner of the net, although the point was eventually awarded to their opponents. There were countless jokes and laughter between Nadal and Federer, even as they played hard for a final win. Djokovic and Murray, meanwhile, the only players qualified to give the pair tactical advice, often chimed in with their discussions during switchovers.
Federer’s storied career ended when the pair played a bad tiebreak after an intense, tight second set. With the match up for grabs in the final set 10-point tiebreak, Nadal begged himself to play with aggression.
They burst into the tiebreak and the crowd gave a standing ovation after smashing through the first three points. But right at the end, with a match point on Federer’s serve, they settled for a defeat.
Earlier in the day, as Federer and Rafael Nadal drove to his final pre-match training session, Federer broadcast their journey live on Instagram. Federer giggled as they emphasized how inconvenient their preparation was and admitted that his constant laughter betrayed his nerves. In the end, Federer explained that although Nadal would complete a full warm-up, he would only train for 15-20 minutes.
Of all the ways Federer imagined how his career would eventually end, many aspects of this goodbye seem so hard to say. He entered the O2 Arena physically compromised after 14 months of desperately trying to make a full return. But in the end it didn’t matter. He has already given so much, both for himself and for the sport, and he is leaving at 41 with a career as complete as any other.
He has played the best tennis ever seen, with grace and style. But he has complimented ease with grit and resilience, qualities rarely discussed but essential to all of his success.
Federer has suffered so many crushing defeats over the course of his 24 years on the tour, but he never failed to lift his head, show his face again, and put himself in the same position to succeed or fail again.
He remains the epitome of growth over the course of his career, an inconsistent and volatile youngster who blossomed into one of the most enduring.
Federer’s presence will be felt throughout the tour. Be it the caps with his logo that have been a constant at every tournament around the world even in his absence for the past 15 months, for the many other players who turned into floppy fans in his presence.
So many of them have tried to learn from aspects of his greatness to succeed, and many have built great careers as a result. But there will never be anyone like him.