Farewells are never perfect. Emotions trump everything. That’s the beauty. When tears flow, leaving the rest of us with lumps in our throats and struggling to hold back our tears, we know that it has been a befitting farewell.
Roger Federer received a grand farewell on Friday (September 23). A farewell that befits the greatest in tennis. The Swiss tennis maestro cried. So did Rafael Nadal and the rest of the crowd at the O2 Arena in London. Goodbyes are never easy, as Federer found out. It must have been tougher than all the challenges he faced in a career of more than 20 years.
The presence of so many tennis greats would have made it even harder. Right beside Federer was Nadal, a close friend and his greatest rival. The two had teamed up for the Laver Cup doubles game. Doling out advice from the sidelines were their Team Europe members Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Between the four, they own 66 Grand Slam titles.
88 grand slams in O2 Arena
There’s more. Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg won 11 grand slams, including five in a row at Wimbledon. His greatest rival and Team World captain John McEnroe had racked up 7. Add broadcaster Jim Courier’s 4, and you get 88 titles. Truly an epic send-off
It wasn’t a fairytale ending. Such endings can only be scripted. For the record, Federer lost the doubles game. But who cares? The result didn’t matter; it was a minor statistic. The occasion was bigger than the match and the tournament.
Here was Federer bidding adieu after a career spanning more than two decades. A career in which he was king till Nadal came along to challenge his crown. Djokovic’s rise turned the duel for tennis supremacy into a three-way challenge. With 63 grand slams, the three redefined tennis.
When Nadal and Djokovic arrived, Federer had installed himself as the crowd favourite. With his winning smile, impeccable manners and an alluring array of strokes, the Swiss won over the crowds worldwide. No tennis player, not even Borg in his prime, has had such a following. The spectators continued to back him even when he was losing, much to the dismay of his rivals Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
There was magic in Federer. He wasn’t fleetfooted but covered the court with the grace and ease of a ballet dancer, essaying elegant and effortless strokes. In the days of doublefisted backhands, the Swiss relied on the classic single-handed backhand. His topspin backhand down the line would often elicit gasps from the stands as it flew past the flailing racquets of his rivals and dipped inside the baseline. His drops from the backcourt, the drop volleys from the forecourt, the laser forehands and the pinpoint serves were all a connoisseur’s delight.
Players like Federer a rarity. Rod Laver was one. But no one else came close to Federer. Nadal and Djokovic may have won more grand slams, but genius is not a tag I would associate with them. That description belongs to Federer, and Federer only.
What’s a Federer Moment?
At the zenith of his career, Federer could do as he pleases. The Guardian writer Sean Ingle once said Federer’s racquet played like a Stradivarius. American writer David Foster Wallace compared watching Federer play to a religious experience. There were moments of sheer genius, which Wallace calls Federer Moments. “The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do,” Wallace said.
Here’s Wallace’s description of a Federer Moment.
“It’s the finals of the 2005 US Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to centre.
“Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centreline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot into the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him.”
A stroke of genius! Isn’t it?
It takes a genius to thrive in the era of Nadal and Djokovic. To win 20 grand slams in the face of such intense competition is a testament to Federer’s virtuoso skills. Of the 11 grand slam finals Federer lost, Nadal tripped him in six, while Djokovic accounted for four (the other loss was to Juan del Potro).
Roger and Rafa: friends and foes
It was surreal to see Nadal sobbing as he watched Federer fight desperately to regain composure. Makes me wonder how archrivals can be such good friends. Rafa and Roger, their friendship is not just for the cameras. They genuinely love and support each other.
Nadal’s tears were understandable since Federer was a constant in his career and life. Their rivalry lit up tennis and gave us some of the greatest matches in history. So it was appropriate that his fiercest rival, a perennial presence across the net, teamed up with Federer in his final game.
Two greats in tears sharing a bench as one signs off on his career. The pair hugged, and the O2 Arena erupted in applause. What a moment! Federer couldn’t have asked for more.