Roger Federer ended his professional career today after playing a doubles match at the Laver Cup alongside his longtime rival, Rafael Nadal. The pair lost 6-4, 6-7, 9-11 to the American team of Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe. SI’s Jon Wertheim and Chris Almeida reflect on Federer’s retirement, his final match, and his legacy.
Jon Wertheim: We all thought this would end in England, but not in an indoor arena, but probably at a prestigious grass event that he’s won more than anyone else.
Chris Almeida: Also probably with a singles match.
JW: Right, we all assumed he would be alone on his side of the net. That said, there’s some symbolism to Roger Federer’s career ending at an event named for the last man to win the Grand Slam while sharing half of the court with his greatest rival. One of the ways Federer blazed a trail was in showing that an opponent doesn’t need to be an enemy. It’s appropriate that he’s playing alongside somebody who pushed him and challenged him and…
US: And took a lot from him! And he was able to get over that.
JW: Exactly. If Rafa Nadal follows his uncle and plays soccer, you could say Federer would have 40 major titles. And you also might say that without Nadal, Federer doesn’t stick around into his 40s. It’s a great case study of rivalry. Nadal took away some of those titles, but he also probably gave Federer something as well.
US: A lot of the tweaks that Federer made to his game in the, I want to say late, but really I mean the second half of his career, were Nadal-driven. The Sneak Attack By Roger, the flattening out of the backhand in 2017 to take away that high, spinny ball…even the racket change that he made about ten years ago was not in small part meant to help deal with that heavy topspin in a way that the old 90 square-inch head couldn’t.
It’s fitting that they’re wrapping this thing up together. I know it’s not the first time that it’s happened, but still, that Federer is ending his playing career with a rival at an event that I spearheaded that brings a lot of the top guys to an event that they all seem to really love, it’s in character.
JW: Yeah, this is his baby. It’s an event that is named after Rod Laver, its teams are captained by John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg… it’s about the past, present and future. It’s about tennis’ lineage more than any one player, which is in keeping with Federer.
US: Leave it to him to put on this event that is…mostly crediting everybody else.
Anyway: we should talk about the match itself. It was actually pretty exciting. And before we really get into it, an aside: Jack Sock is very good. I guess that’s not a surprise to anyone who’s been following doubles, but he rarely gets a spotlight like this, so good for him.
But yes, you just tweeted that Federer didn’t look compromised. To be fair, he didn’t look great, sure, but certainly at age 41 after a one-and-a-half-year layoff, it could have gone a lot worse.
JW: If you’d told Roger Federer was going to play his last match and a takeaway was gonna be damn jack sockwell that’s certainly not how I would have seen the story ending, but that’s why we love sports.
For a guy who hadn’t played in more than a year, Federer more than held his own. Nadal was more nervous than I’ve ever seen him. The whole thing was a little weird. It’s after midnight in London. It was double. It was in this competition that strenuously tries not to be an exhibition, but it also doesn’t really have the feel of a conventional tournament. A little weird, but nice.
And it reminds me a little of Serena where it started off where you’re thinking: I hope this isn’t embarrassing. And then you’re left thinking, Boy, I don’t know, there’s still some tennis talent there. That didn’t look like a player on his last legs.
CA: Especially from the back of the court, I looked solid. The groundstrokes looked really good, his movement looked. At the net, his volleys looked a little sloppy and he seemed a little tentative about pushing off the knee, but it was a pretty good performance against perhaps the best doubles player in the world and Tiafoe who is a bonafide force in singles. So this wasn’t just a setup against chumps.
JW: Yeah, and Federer and Nadal gave them a good 20 years.
CA: Oh, now Roger’s bawling. What a guy, of course he is.
JW: Rafa is crying, too.
CA: Now that is something I can’t remember seeing before.
JW: If we said that Serena Williams’s great contribution to the sport was that she really expanded possibilities and expanded the tennis demographic. It might be Federer’s contribution that he turned this individual sport into a team sport and he showed you could be really good and still be nice.
CA: That it was OK to be happy.
JW: One of the great legacies of his career is that he showed you could like the person across the net. I showed you could be really, really good and also be really kind.
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