Witnessing Roger Federer's Fairytale(ish) Ending


There was smoke rising from a vent. There were pools of red and blue light sweeping across the darkened tiers. There was a DJ playing Euro dance-party hits. There were baseball caps. So many baseball caps. And there was tension in the air. It was the evening session of the first day of the Laver Cup, an indoor men’s tennis competition featuring 12 of the sport’s most high-profile players that takes place two weeks after the US Open in different cities around the world. This year it was London, and over the PA system the compere welcomed the 17,500-strong capacity crowd to the O2 Arena: “As we honor the legend that is….” The audience held its breath. “Rod Laver!”

Of course! Rod Laver. The Rocket. The 84-year-old Australian tennis great of the 1960s and 1970s for whom the tournament is named. But tonight was not about Rod Laver as Rod Laver – who, like Bill Gates, Hugh Grant, JK Rowling, and, of course, Anna Wintour, was in attendance – would have been the first to admit. The crowd had assembled to honor just one man. A week earlier, 41-year-old Roger Federer, the most sublime and beloved player of the modern tennis era, had announced he was retiring from the sport, and that his appearance tonight would be his last. Sorry Rod, but this was Roger’s party: he would cry if he wanted to. (And, as it turned out, he did.)


The Laver Cup is a funny old competition, with an atmosphere that sits somewhere between a proper tournament – though it became an official ATP event in 2019 – and a series of exhibition games. What is at stake for the players who participate, besides the (by tennis standards) modest prize money and an undisclosed appearance fee, is prestige, and a seat at Roger’s table; or more specifically a space on the two curved leather banquettes to the side of the Laver Cup’s “iconic black court” from which the teams – six players representing “Team Europe”, six representing “Team World” – are expected to watch and whoop at each other’s efforts.

Because despite having Laver’s name on it, the Laver Cup was Federer’s idea – he envisioned it to be a tennis version of golf’s Ryder Cup – and it was his own company, TEAM8, plus a couple of business partners, who launched it in Prague in 2017. Choosing to play his last game here would surely be a masterstroke of both poignancy and business nous: a balancing act at which Federer, throughout his career, and as the logos of luxury brands glowing from the O2’s digital billboards attest, has excelled.

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Whether it was for the cash or the kudos, it was hard to argue with the caliber of players who had turned out to play alongside Federer on this late September evening. To the right of the umpire’s chair, in blue: Team Europe, captained by the lupine Björn Borg. Here was Rafael Nadal, with his kind, worried face; Novak Djokovic, tanned and imperturbable as ever; Britain’s Andy Murray, with the familiar grimace that we’ve learned not to take too seriously; Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, all fresh of skin and luscious of hair (also Britain’s Cameron Norrie, looking somewhat mystified to be there). In the middle, of course: Federer himself, smiling beatifically at his gathered apostles.

From left to right: Team Europe’s Casper Ruud, Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and, with his back to the camera, Rafa Nadal, gather around Roger Federer in the tunnel of the O2 Arena in London on the opening day of the 2022 Laver Cup

Photo by CLIVE BRUNSKILL/Getty Images.

To the left of the umpire’s chair, in red: Team World, captained by the vulpine John McEnroe, consisting of lesser-known-but-on-the-up players from North and South America and Australia whose job this evening in Federer’s final match – a doubles game in which he would be paired with Nadal to take on Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe – was surely, surely, obvious: give Team Europe a run for their money and the crowd a decent show, before fading into tennis history as the lesser-known-but-on-the-up players to whom Federer, in the Hollywood ending we all were wishing for, gave an elegant and majestic thrashing. If not officially written into their contracts, it was surely written in the stars.


Federer’s hype-man for the evening was the somewhat unlikely figure of Murray, who played the session’s opening singles game against Australia’s Alex de Minaur, aged 23 and ATP-ranked 22. Despite groaning and creaking his way around the court like a drowning man in a diving suit, Murray took the first set impressively, before tiring in the second and succumbing in a final tie-break (in the Laver Cup, matches are only two sets long with a deciding 10-point "Champions" tie-break if need be). This was the first win of the tournament for Team World, having lost both matches of the opening afternoon session, and in his post-match interview with Tim Henman, De Minaur expressed hope that the next fixture – Federer’s swansong – might deliver their second. The crowd booed. Henman deadpanned: “And you were doing so well.”

And then finally, just after 10pm, it was time. The lights dimmed. The PA system played the kind of ominous light-orchestral music you hear when you’re in the queue for Space Mountain, before switching to a heartbeat-cum-countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7… The big moment was arriving… 6, 5, 4… And we fortunate few were all here to witness it… 3, 2, 1… Let Federer’s fairytale ending begin!


If 17,498 people in the room that evening knew what was supposed to happen next, it was a memo that Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World did not appear to have received. Twenty-four-year-old Tiafoe in particular, fresh from his first US Open Semi-Final and now ranked 19 in the world, played with the liberated confidence of an athlete who knows that the crowd aren’t behind him, but that his own best playing days are ahead. Nadal, on the other hand, for whom the love in the arena seemed almost on a par with that for Roger, played like an athlete coming to terms with the fact that his body is not the mighty instrument it once was, or perhaps just like one who hadn’t spent quite enough time practicing his volleys.

A view from the stands of Roger Federer’s final match, a doubles game with Rafa Nadal against Team World’s Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe

Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images.

And yet a game was played, the points punctuated by the sound of strangled, mostly male voices yelping “I love you, Roger!” and the breaks filled with glossy, hagiographic videos from Federer’s sponsors on the giant screens overhead. In fact, of the four players on court, it was Federer who was the quietest, and though his movement was often as frictionless and balletic as ever, the crowd had to savor the moments of beauty when they arose and overlook the deflating errors that came too. The most thrilling moments of the match – a volley from Nadal that was so impossibly good it prompted Tiafoe to come around the net to congratulate him, and a forehand from Federer that seemed to bend like a guided missile – turned out to be the stuff of fantasy: video replays showed that Nadal’s shot was out and Federer’s had, somewhat fantastically, traveled through the net, rather than over it.


But still, the narrative trajectory seemed on course. Team Europe took the first set, Team World, after a tie-break, the second. They would play a tie-break for the win. The end-game – of the match, but also of the Federer era – was upon us. The tension grew as it passed midnight, and the 10-point target approached. Federer’s wife Mirka and the twins – both sets – were waiting in the darkened tunnel. Perpetual Wintour, in her trademark shades, was watching impassively (and presumably able to see very little) in the stygian gloom. Was that the last arcing smash we would ever see Roger play in the professional game? Is this his final devastatingly graceful backhand? And then, at last, it was happening: Team Europe up 9 points to 8, with Federer to serve for the match. The cosmos was working; the fates were going to oblige.

Except Tiafoe and Sock were not. And they won the point. And then they won the next two. And suddenly the match was over, and Team Europe had lost. Federer’s ending had somehow gone awry; the gears of progress had turned a little quicker than they should; the youth had come for Roger and 36-year-old Rafa, and they were taking no prisoners. Despite the Swiss precision with which the occasion had been orchestrated, there was to be no last hurrah.


Jack Sock commiserates Rafael Nadal and Frances Tiafoe embraces Roger Federer after Team World’s doubles victory over Team Europe

Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images.

Still, we clapped politely for Team World, as we knew we should, and we dabbed our eyes when Roger cried, as we knew he would, and also when Rafa cried, whose tears were more of a surprise. And we cheered and clapped as the cheesy celebratory VTs rolled, and Federer hugged his family, and talked to Jim Courier through his sobs. And though it wasn’t the ending we’d hoped for, and it was a little on-the-nose to hear the opening strings of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” start to play, we couldn’t help but admit that when Chris Martin sang “I used to rule the world”, and Federer looked around the dark arena at the spectacle he had built, and the logos of the sponsorship he had won, and the adoration of total strangers he had earned, and at the era that was passing, it felt, maybe, kind of right.


FromEsquire UK

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Miranda Collinge
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