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Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer having a laugh during the Wimbledon centre court centenary celebrations at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in July. Image Credit: Reuters

London: Novak Djokovic said Roger Federer set the tone for excellence, after the Swiss great announced he would retire from the sport he dominated following next week’s Laver Cup in London.

Federer, 41, who redefined the sport with his artistry and grace and collected 20 Grand Slam titles, announced on Thursday that injury issues in the last few years meant that he would call time on his glittering career at the men’s team event.

Tributes poured in after Federer’s announcement and Djokovic heaped more praise on the player he shared an enduring rivalry with during his own rise to the top of the men’s game.

“Roger it’s hard to see this day and put into words all that we’ve shared in this sport together,” Djokovic, who surpassed Federer’s tally of 20 Grand Slams when he captured the Wimbledon title this year, said on Instagram.

“Over a decade of incredible moments and battles to think back on. Your career has set the tone for what it means to achieve excellence and lead with integrity and poise.

Great rivalry

“It’s an honour to know you on and off court, and for many years to come. I know that this new chapter will hold amazing things for you, Mirka, the kids, all your loved ones, and Roger fans still have a lot to look forward to.

“From our family to yours, we wish you much joy, health, and prosperity in the future.”

Djokovic will join Federer as well as his other great rival — 22-time major champion Rafa Nadal — and fellow “Big Four” member Andy Murray, when they play on the same team for the first time at the September 23-25 Laver Cup.

“Looking forward to celebrating your achievements and seeing you in London,” Djokovic said.

Golden era

As Federer joined Serena Williams in bringing down the curtain on an illustrious career, tennis moved ever closer to the end of a golden era.

Serena’s emotional goodbye at the US Open earlier this month was followed by Federer’s announcement. Both players had taken their sport to new levels and been proclaimed the best to ever wield a racquet, with 43 Grand Slam singles titles between them.

Their departures, along with the fact that Federer’s great rivals Rafa Nadal and Djokovic aren’t getting any younger, have left fans looking back wistfully at a glorious period in the sport’s history.

Federer’s decision was not unexpected given his recent struggles with injuries and form, but it was still met with an outpouring of sadness by tennis fans and former players.

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Serena Williams speaks with Roger Federer during a ribbon cutting ceremony on new stadium court at Hard Rock Stadium at Miami Open Tennis Complex. Image Credit: USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

“I wanted to find the perfect way to say this, as you so eloquently put this game to rest — perfectly done, just like your career,” Serena said in an Instagram post, reacting to Federer’s retirement.

“I have always looked up to you and admired you. Our paths were always so similar, so much the same. You inspired countless millions and millions of people — including me — and we will never forget.

“Welcome to the retirement club.”

Like the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena, who in 10 days will also turn 41, the triumvirate of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated their sport for the last two decades.

And despite spending so many years on the tour, they continue to lure fans to the stands and television screens while their commercial pull still mesmerises brands and advertisers.

Serena’s place in the sport was underlined by the fact that her final match at Flushing Meadows was the most-watched tennis telecast in ESPN’s 43-year history while the 2022 edition broke the tournament’s all-time attendance record.

‘Big three’

The so-called men’s ‘Big Three’ revolutionised the sport with their own achievements and riveting rivalries. They won a combined 63 Grand Slam singles titles between them.

Federer played Nadal 40 times while Djokovic faced the Swiss in 50 matches as the trio boosted each other and along with it the sport as a whole and brought in new and old fans.

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Defending champion Roger Federer (right) holds the winner's trophy with runner-up Rafael Nadal after the Wimbledon men's singles final in 2006. Image Credit: AP file

Yet in recent years injuries to Serena, Federer and Nadal have brought their retirement into sharper focus. Fans and pundits have wondered how the sport would cope with the prospect of losing their most marketable athletes.

With the exit of Serena and Federer in the space of three weeks, the answers could be at hand.

At 36, Nadal is a bit younger, but a chronic foot issue forced the Spaniard to contemplate retirement in 2021 and again this year after he won a men’s record 22nd major title at the French Open, playing with numbing injections before each match in Paris.

Radio frequency treatment

A radio frequency treatment eased pain in his foot and allowed him to play Wimbledon, but the left-hander does not know whether the injury will flare up again.

The 35-year-old Djokovic is the youngest among the trio, undoubtedly the fittest and appears to be the best bet to keep the flag flying for tennis’ older generation.

Nadal’s message on social media for his “friend and rival” Federer echoed the mood of the tennis world.

“I wish this day would have never come. It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world,” Nadal said.