Roger Federer’s last match is a double loss to Rafael Nadal

LONDON (AP) – This day, this game, had to come naturally for Roger Federer and for tennis, just as it inevitably has to come for every athlete in every sport.

Federer said farewell on Friday night with one last competition before retiring at the age of 41 after a superlative career that spanned almost a quarter of a century and has included 20 Grand Slam titles and the role of statesman. He ended his days as a professional player by losing in doubles alongside longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup to Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.

The truth is that the winners, the stats and the result (OK, for the record it was 4-6, 7-6(2), 11-9) didn’t matter and were all so utterly beside the point. In the end it was all about saying goodbye. Or rather the farewells, plural: Federer from tennis, from the fans, from his competitors and colleagues. And of course the farewell of each of these units from Federer.

“It was a perfect trip,” said Federer. “I would do it again and again.”

When the match ended, and with it his time in professional tennis, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer started crying. Many tears flowed; Nadal wiped away his own as well. As cascades of claps and cries of affection erupted from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. He then mouthed “thank you” while applauding straight back to the viewers, who had been chanting, “Let’s go Roger! Let’s go! ” in the final moments of a game that lasted more than two hours and ended around 12:30 a.m

His wife Mirka, their four children – twin girls and twin boys – and Federer’s parents joined him in the pitch afterwards to hug and, yes, yell some more. Members of both teams joined forces to lift Federer into the air.

“It was a wonderful day. I’ve told the guys I’m happy; I’m not sad,” said Federer. “I enjoyed tying my shoes again. Everything was the last time.”

The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day team event set up by his management company would be his last event before retiring and then clarified that the doubles game would be the last game. His surgically repaired right knee – the latest of three surgeries that followed shortly after a Wimbledon quarter-final defeat in July 2021 that will be seen as his official singles end – is in no shape to allow him to continue.

“For me personally, it was sad at first moment when I came to the conclusion that it’s the best decision,” Federer said of his emotions in an interview with The Associated Press this week at realizing it was time to walk . “I kind of held it back at first and then fought back. But I could feel the pain.”

He had said that this should feel more like a party than a funeral and the crowd complied, rising to a loud and prolonged standing ovation as Federer and Nadal, who is 36 – each wearing a white bandana , a blue shirt and white shorts – emerged together from a tunnel leading to the Black Court for the final game of Day 1 at the O2 Arena. They stayed on their feet for nearly 10 minutes during the pre-game warm-up, holding up cell phone cameras to capture the moment.

They came ready to holler for him, some with Swiss flags, some with homemade signs (one read “Idol Forever”), and they made themselves felt with a wall of sound when Federer threw a forehand volley on the second point of the game -Winner delivered. Similar reactions came only to the chair umpire’s announcement before the third game of “Roger Federer to serve” and again when he ended that game with a serve winner at 115 mph.

“Obviously 99.9% of the crowd was against us. But it was super fun just being a part of this game. I think we’ll be forever grateful to be a part of the final game of the GOAT,” said Sock, using the acronym for “Greatest of All Time”.

Of course, the doubles requires much less movement and space coverage, so Friday’s stress on Federer’s knee was limited. Sure, it showed traces of its old flair and, as you’d expect, rust.

There were a few early forehands that sailed several feet too long. Then there was a forehand that slipped right between Sock and Tiafoe and seemed too good to be true – and, as it turned out, was: the ball flew through a gap below the netting tape, taking the point away from Federer and Nadal .

Although this match was essentially a glorified show, all four doubles contestants played like they wanted to win. That was clear when Sock, a 29-year-old three-time major doubles champion, jumped and screamed after a particularly great volley, or when Tiafoe, 24, sent a couple of shots straight at Federer and Nadal.

But circumstances allowed for moments of hilarity.

Federer and Nadal were able to laugh about who should play a ball on a lost point after some confusion. After Nadal somehow threw a back-to-the-net shot around the post that narrowly hit the net, Tiafoe, a semi-finalist at the US Open, crossed his hand to congratulate him on the performance.

In the opening set, the older duo couldn’t quite hear each other between points, so Federer trotted off the net back to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pointed to his ear to signal what the problem was.

Before Federer started winning Grand Slam titles in 2003, the men’s mark for most major tennis championships was 14 by Pete Sampras. Federer overcame that, amassing eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open and one at the French Open, setting a new standard that Nadal, now at 22, and Novak Djokovic, at 21, matched and then surpassed , as part of a golden era for the sport.

Certainly there are those who would have found it particularly fitting for Federer to come across the net ahead of Nadal, who is often a nemesis on the pitch but eventually a friend off the pitch. Perhaps it could have taken place around 15 miles away at the All England Club’s Center Court, or at Court Philippe Chatrier in Roland Garros, at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park, or even at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the heart of the US Open, the only Grand -Slam tournament in which they somehow never faced each other.

Perhaps they could have offered everyone one final episode of a head-to-head match as memorable as any in the long history of their sport – or indeed any.

Roger vs Rafa – only one name required per piece – belongs up there with McEnroe vs Borg (as it happens, the two captains of the Laver Cup team, John and Bjorn), Evert vs Navratilova, Sampras vs. Agassi, Ali vs Frazier, Magic vs Vogel, Brady vs Manning and so on.

Over the years, Federer and Nadal have displayed individual greatness and compelling contrasts in their 40 matches, 14 in Grand Slam tournaments, nine in major finals: righty vs left-hander, attacker vs grinder, apparent ease vs unrelenting intensity.

And yet there was an unmistakable element of poetry in these two men, who challenged and exalted one another by acting as partners, clapping palms and smiling.

That departure follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the US Open three weeks ago following a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she have dominated and surpassed for decades.

One key difference: Every time Williams went to court in New York, the question was how long her stay would last — a “win or this is it” prospect.

Friday WAS it for Federer no matter the result.

“All players will miss him,” said Casper Ruud, who defeated Sock in singles 6-4, 5-7, 10-7.

The other results of the day that saw Team Europe and Team World tied 2-2: Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 in a match that was briefly interrupted when an environmental protester occupied part of the pitch and his own arm lit fire and Alex de Minaur passed Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7.

To start playing shortly after Murray’s defeat ended, Federer and Nadal first gave him some coaching tips and then watched part of it on TV together in a room in the arena, waiting for their turn. With Federer and Nadal in action, it was Djokovic’s turn to suggest strategies.

The final hooray came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 singles match wins for Federer, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era that began in 1968.

At the peak of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals from 2005-2007, winning eight. Extend that to 2010, and he reached 18 out of 19 major finals.

More than those numbers, people will remember the powerful forehand, one-handed backhand, flawless footwork, spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part on which he is proudest, remember – the unusual longevity. Aside from the elegance and effectiveness in handling a racquet, Federer’s personality made him an ambassador for tennis, someone whose immense popularity helped attract fans.

“It feels like a celebration to me,” Federer said, before taking a walk like a lap of honor around the venue, blowing kisses and waving. “I wanted to end up feeling that way, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for.”