Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – a group of the three greatest men’s tennis players of all time and the four defining competitors of the generation – were packed tightly together for their Laver Cup press conference on Thursday while they all converged for the final time as professionals.
As they reminisced on their old matches and laughed about shared memories, glorious or devastating depending on the perspective, Federer interjected: “Sitting here, it feels good that I go first from the guys,” he said, smiling. “It just feels right.”
In many ways, this final chapter of Federer’s career is bleak. Despite his reputation avoiding serious injury throughout his career, his final years have been ravaged by injury. Unlike the recent intense, competitive departure of Serena Williams, Federer can only trust his knee to last one short doubles match. In his final bout alongside Nadal, his Team Europe teammate, he will enter the O2 Arena against Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night simply hoping to compete at a respectable level.
But the circumstances are fitting. He will be seen off by three of the toughest opponents of his life, players who have defined this past decade and a half of the sport, pushing it forward in so many ways. Between the four, they have won 66 grand slam titles, faced off against each other 234 times and they have spent a total of 933 weeks at No 1. For over a decade, they packed out the later stages of each major tournament and blocked nearly all others from succeeding.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be a special thing,” said Nadal. “I think very difficult, difficult one. Gonna be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. For me too. At the end, one of the most important players, if not most important player in my tennis career, is leaving, no?”
Federer arrived first and at 41 years old he will leave in that order. Five years older than Nadal, 36, he set the bar in the sky, winning his first grand slam title in 2003, enacting his dominance and forcing everyone else to catch up. Nadal followed, a teenage supernova who first established himself on clay and then gradually caught up elsewhere.
Just as they had built a generational two-part rivalry, their games and personalities sharply contrasting, Djokovic, now 35, smashed through the seemingly impenetrable barrier they had built and marked himself as their equal. While Murray, 35, does not compare to the big three, for years he stood as the only other player who consistently faced up to them in the biggest events.
In time they pushed each other, forcing the others to take their games to greater heights. They have contested some of the greatest matches that have ever been seen and they have constantly broken each other’s hearts.
Alongside the clear respect, there have naturally been many moments of tension.
Now, they will play out the final moments of Federer’s career on the same side on the court. “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,” said Djokovic.