Roger Federer in tears with Rafael Nadal as the final match ends in an emotional defeat
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It was after midnight in London when the final point of Roger Federer’s career was played. The fact that it meant his final match ended in heartbreaking defeat in a decisive tiebreak didn’t seem to matter. Federer cried soon after, not because of the result, but because of the people he was able to share the moment with. Rafael Nadal was soon crying next to him. By the end, there was hardly anyone who wasn’t.
For so many years, Federer had faced Nadal in the heat of battle, the intensity of their rivalry taking the sport to new heights. When he came out, he did so with Nadal by his side in an iconic final partnership. Nadal had warned that the departure of the most important figure in tennis history would be a difficult moment and as the lump in Federer’s throat choked him for words late into the night at the O2 Arena, it proved so.
Federer wanted to put on a show in the final match of his career and was afforded the sight of two of the sport’s great rivals together on the same side of the net. A thrilling contest with Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock representing Team World in the Laver Cup did not end with the result many had hoped for before Federer’s final farewell, but a historic night for tennis ended in celebration nonetheless.
“It was exactly as we hoped,” said Federer, as he was joined by Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the players who defined an era of tennis, as well as his family. It was the mention of the support of his wife, Mirka, and their four children that led to an outpouring of emotion. For more than two decades, he represented so much of what countless sportsmen and women have devoted countless hours of their lives to chasing: greatness. The ending was much more personal, much more human.
“The match was special, sure, but it’s really everything that happened after,” Federer said. “I look around and see how excited everyone is. That’s what I’ll remember: the faces I saw.” He smiled. “Rafa was one of them.”
Nadal was shaky on his first serves and his first was a double fault as the finality of the occasion began. “It was a difficult day to deal with every single thing and at the end it all became super emotional,” he said. “For me, it was a great honor to be a part of this amazing moment in the history of our sport. When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life leaves too.”
Federer is now walking away from a sport in which he achieved what was close to perfection. In his last game and first appearance on the field in over a year, he set his expectations to be somewhat competitive. Over the course of two sets and a deciding tiebreak, he and Nadal managed much more. Federer held a match point and was one moment away from the perfect finish.
He’ll miss the little things, he admitted this week: putting on his shoes one last time before taking the field, adjusting his bandana and a final look in the mirror. But one thing he won’t miss in retirement is the long wait before a big game and the knot in his stomach that follows him during the day. He was made to wait until after 10pm in London after Andy Murray’s long match delayed the inevitable, giving him another hour of the life he will soon leave behind.
Federer and Nadal had appeared in pairs and from the start they took it in turns to hit the net, working in tandem. In the opening game, Federer’s first touch with a competitive tennis ball since last July was a driven volley, and Nadal followed with his own forehand. The pair pursued a short and fast game, narrowing the points and closing the field. There were, understandably, moments of rust, but Nadal tried to step in when Federer was on the baseline.
Federer kept it simple but remained remarkably capable, even if a forehand winner that actually went through a tennis-ball-sized hole in the net may not have counted as a legal shot. Federer’s serve is still one of the best around. His forehands and subtle spins fooled Sock and, along with his quick hands at the net, gave him a solid enough platform for him and Nadal to build on.
With the opening set tight and few chances emerging in the return game, Federer swung into action to stop a smash with Tiafoe and Sock threatening. Nadal then opened the court beautifully with a angled winner. Sensing the opportunity, Federer found his forehand as Europe broke to take the set.
Sock and Tiafoe were determined, serious opponents to face and rose to the task. They broke early in the second when Nadal pushed a forehand wide and Federer, stretching to the net, was unable to keep a ball in play. Tiafoe’s delightful touch and fading volleys helped the American pair into the lead, while Federer and Nadal briefly tangled with each other in the backcourt.
Nadal responded with a sliding backhand winner around the posts that Federer would have been proud of. The hold helped the pair settle again and they managed to break the weapon of Tiafoe’s serve in the next game to level. Federer and Nadal battled hard for momentum that never came. Djokovic, sitting on court, rose to clinical forehands and volleys, of which there were several, but it was Tiafoe and Sock who carried their threat into the second set tiebreak and played at a more consistent level.
In the decider, Federer and Nadal jumped into an early lead and the Swiss produced one of his finest moments. An ace and quick volley, reading Sock’s pass down the line, moved the European team into a position where Federer sat with ball in hand on match point.
John McEnroe insisted his Team World side were not villains, but when Tiafoe forced Federer into the net and then Sock beat him with a forehand winner down the line, the cruel twist was that they had done their part. In the final moments, however, no one seemed to mind. Federer and the memories he leaves us with will last much longer.
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