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For Roger Federer, the most enduring testament to his greatness will be the love his rivals had for him


Late into the match tiebreaker in the final match of his career, playing doubles alongside Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer produced one of the many moments that have made him one of the most revered athletes of his generation.

The Swiss maestro arched at a ferocious ground stroke, blunted the pace with a perfectly timed volley, and placed it to perfection — vintage Federer. The 17,500 fans in attendance at the O2 Arena in London gave it the biggest cheer of the night, and Novak Djokovic, at the event as Federer’s teammate to give him a grand send-off, leapt to his feet with his jaw dropped in disbelief.

A few moments later, as Federer served for the match — one he and Nadal eventually lost to Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock 6-4, 6-7, 11-9 at the Laver Cup — Djokovic, who got the better of Federer on more occasions than any other player, stood on the couch where his team was meant to be seated and jeered the crowd to make as much noise as possible. It was an acknowledgment of greatness, from one of his fiercest and at times, most contentious rivals.

On Friday night in London, the spotlight of Federer’s retirement party was stolen by the distinct outpouring of emotion, admiration, love, and respect that his rivals had for him as he played his last. The highlight image from the night was that of Nadal, who sobbed – at one moment more inconsolably and uncontrollably than Federer – at the thought of the departure of his greatest rival.

“When Roger leaves the tour, yeah, an important part of my life is leaving too because all the moments he has been next or in front me in important moments of my life,” Nadal said per Reuters in the post-match press conference. “Very proud to be part of his career in some way. But even happier to finish our career like friends after everything we shared on court like rivals.”

The images and videos of Nadal bawling his eyes out while holding Federer’s hand summarise how personal a loss Federer’s retirement is for Nadal better than words possibly could. When Nadal burst onto the scene, Federer was the World No. 1, and untouchable at the summit of men’s tennis. Nadal had to defeat him to win five of his first six Grand Slams – including the incredible five-set Wimbledon 2008 final, considered by many as the greatest tennis match in the history of the game.

For Federer, Nadal was a consistent thorn in his side, challenging him to the highest level at a time when nobody could touch him. But he brought out the best in him, considered virtually impossible at the time, as their rivalry evolved into one of the most cherished in professional sport. Its euphoric popularity came to define an entire generation of men’s tennis and played a massive role in the development of the game seen today.

Without Federer, Nadal may never have been the 22-time Grand Slam champion he is today, and it is safe to say the same for Federer. It was therefore fitting that he hand-picked the Spaniard to be alongside him as he played his last ever match, and even more so that his great rival and friend duly obliged.

A thought for Djokovic, who arrived later to form one of the most enthralling trios in sports history, must be spared too. Nadal and Federer seemed to have an instant bond ever since their rivalry kicked off, and the friendship that has now evolved between them may be unique, but not entirely unexpected. For Djokovic and Federer though, there was always heat in between the indifferent handshakes at the net, and the subtly spiteful comments in the press. Their families and fans would feud, and their matches would often be combative. Both, in their own way, clashed to be the for the title of the greatest.

On Friday, however, Djokovic showed how much Federer meant to him and the game. The Serb played no part in the pageantry, but was enthusiastically seen and heard in the background.

He cheered on his greatest rivals, took out his phone to record the memorable moments, passed on astute strategic and tactical advice during the changeovers, and was first in line when the rest of the field decided to lift him on their shoulders. Having held it together with a smile on his face for much of the occasion, the tears began to flow when he saw his rival take in the moment with his family, a most genuine display of emotion.

It is safe to say Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic – along with Andy Murray who beat the Swiss 11 times, and between 2012 and 2016, turned the ‘Big Three’ into the ‘Big Four’ – changed tennis forever. Any sport’s most memorable moments are produced when its greatest athletes clash, and for the grand trio to have met an astonishing 149 times in total, as the best players in the world playing on the grandest stage, defined a generation.

For Federer, there is not much left to say that has not already been said in the outpouring of love he has received in the week since he announced his retirement. His success transformed a sport that had niche viewership in America and Europe into a global powerhouse, and his absence will leave a crater that will not be filled anytime soon.

As far as send-offs go, Federer perhaps got the greatest that one could in professional sports. There was a teary-eyed ceremony, a tribute video from some of the game’s greatest, and plenty of fanfare. But for an athlete, to say goodbye to his stage as his greatest rivals came together in celebration of his greatness and shed tears at the thought of his loss, it could not get any better.





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