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 had on Friday. After enduring 40 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.
After match point, a visibly emotional Federer spoke to Jim Courier on court. “I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time … the match was great. I couldn’t be happier. It’s been wonderful. And of course, playing with Rafa on the same team and having the guys – everybody here, all the legends – thank you.”
After reflecting on the “perfect journey” of his career, Federer paid a tearful tribute to his wife, Mirka. “She could have stopped me a long, long time ago, but she didn’t. She kept me going and allowed me to play. It’s amazing. Thank you.”
It was an evening that 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.
Federer has played some of the greatest tennis ever to been seen, executing with grace and style. But he has complemented the ease with grit and resilience, qualities rarely discussed but essential to all of his success.
His presence will continue to be felt around the tour. Whether it is through the fans who continue to support him, to the many other players who turned into weak-kneed fans in his presence.
Many have tried to learn from aspects of his greatness in order to succeed, and his influence on other players is undeniable. But there will never be anyone like him.