Over the course of the past decade and more, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have thrived regardless of circumstance. They have stared each other down in the finals of the grandest tournaments around the world and they have brought out their best time after time, even when the tension was most suffocating. Their rivalry, with the frenzied popularity it created and the level it exhibited, has played a foundational role in the recent development of men’s tennis.
Yet nothing could have fully prepared them for the feelings they on Friday. After enduring 40 matches of the most tense, pressure-filled battles against each other, strangely the best moments of Federer’s career have often been the worst of Nadal’s, but they stood together on the same side of the net as they were defeated 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 ever sporting careers came to an end.
It was emotional from the very beginning. Federer and Nadal emerged to the 17,500-capacity sold out crowd at the O2 Arena with a standing ovation and after posing with their opponents at the net, Tiafoe made the point of shaking Federer’s hand before they began.
From their team bench, Novak Djokovic pulled out his phone to record as he supported his two great rivals and during the first change of ends, a tribute video was broadcast in the stadium with contributions from Nadal, Federer’s mother, Lynette and others.
Having not competed for 14 months following his 6-0 fourth set defeat to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon and the knee surgery that followed, even Federer was unsure of how his game would handle both the occasion and its rust.
He did extremely well. While was unable to move at full speed, his hands remained delicate and easy. His first touch of the night was a firm forehand volley winner and it set the tone. After being tidy at the net throughout the first set and serving fairly well, it was Federer who stepped up with the first set on the line and sealed it with a winning forehand.
There was plenty of joy, too. After over 1500 matches, Federer still had time to end with one final first, drilling a forehand between the small gap at 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 one final win. Djokovic and Murray, meanwhile, the only players qualified to give the pair tactical advice, frequently chimed in with their discussions during changeovers.
Federer’s legendary career ended with the pair playing a poor tiebreak after an intense, tight second set. With the match up for grabs in the final set 10-point tiebreak, Nadal implored himself to play with aggression.
They burst into the tiebreak, the crowd granting a standing ovation after breezing through the first three points. But right at the close, with a match point on Federer’s serve, they settled for defeat.
Earlier in the day, as Federer and Rafael Nadal drove towards his last pre-match practice, Federer broadcasted their journey on instagram live. Federer giggled as they stressed how inopportune their preparation was and he admitted that his constant laughter betrayed his nerves. Eventually, Federer explained that while Nadal would complete a full warm-up, he would train only for 15-20 minutes.
Of all the ways that Federer imagined how his career would finally end, many aspects of this farewell seem so difficult to take. He stepped onto the O2 Arena physically compromised after 14 months of desperately trying to return in full. By the end, though, it didn’t matter. He has already given so much, for himself and the sport alike, and he leaves at 41 having accomplished a career as full as any.
He has played some of the greatest tennis that has ever been seen, executing it with grace and style. But he has complimented the 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 yet he never failed to lift his head, show his face again and put himself in the same position to succeed or fail once more.
He remains the poster child of growth throughout the course of his career, an inconsistent and volatile youngster who flourished into one of the most durable.
Federer’s presence will continue to be felt around the tour. Whether it is in the caps bearing his logo that even in his absence over the past 15 months have been a constant at every tournament around the world, to the many other players who turned into weak-kneed fans in his presence.
So many of them have tried to learn from aspects of his greatness in order to succeed, and plenty have built great careers as a result. But there will never be anyone like him.