It was certainly unimaginable that Roger Federer’s trophy-laden career would end in defeat, but that’s what emerged when the 41-year-old Swiss maestro lost alongside Rafa Nadal in an emotional night at the Laver Cup on Friday.
In front of a sold-out crowd of 17,500 at London’s O2 Arena, 20-time Grand Slam champion Federer returned after more than a year’s absence for a final dance in tandem with his great rival in a thrilling and memorable final on the Thames.
With the clock well past midnight, Federer had a chance to seal victory in the doubles when he served on match point in a tense deciding tie-break, but it was not to be as Americans Jack Sock and Francis Tiafoe spoiled the script.
Sock hit a forehand winner to seal a 4-6 7-6 11-9 win for Team World. After a brief moment of near silence around the packed arena, the crowd erupted to greet an emotional Federer.
The London crowd had to wait for Federer and Nadal to arrive as British favorite Andy Murray and Alex De Minaur engaged in a series of interminable rallies in a hard-fought opening match of the evening, which De Minaur eventually won.
Murray’s two Wimbledon titles mean he is a national sporting icon, but the evening was all about Federer – a player who ranks in the pantheon of sporting greats alongside the likes of Pele, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Mohammed Ali.
Even Federer’s practice sessions at the O2 were standing room only, and a tense atmosphere greeted him as he entered the cavernous arena alongside Nadal just after 10pm local time for what was to be his final dance.
“I’ve done it thousands of times, but this one feels different. Thanks to everyone coming tonight,” Federer tweeted earlier in the day.
It was certainly felt by everyone in the crowd, which included Australian great Laver – the man who inspired Federer to create the new team tournament.
After the coin toss formalities, Federer and Nadal, otherwise known as ‘Fedal’, were heard as they warmed up to The Clash’s London Calling playing around the room – Federer raising his hand in salute after his introduction.
There was even more joy when Federer hit a forehand in the opening game – his first competitive shot since a demoralizing loss to Hubert Gurkac in the 2021 Wimbledon quarter-finals when he lost the final set 6-0.
Roger Federer had to fight back tears before thanking Mirko’s wife, who has watched him battle through a series of knee operations. Source: AAP / Kin Cheng / AP
During the changeover, video screens showed some iconic moments from Federer’s 24-year professional career with tributes to Nadal and his mother Lynette.
The American duo of Sock and Tiafoe, pantomime villains for the night, tested Federer’s reaction with some powerful shots aimed at the Swiss maestro, who would have demanded nothing less.
Still, Federer was equal in almost everything, his gentle forehands and nimble footwork intact despite such a long time away from the court.
The pair, with a combined age of 77 and 42 Grand Slam titles, won the first set with a break on Tiafoe’s serve.
Despite the party atmosphere in the stadium, there was no danger that Federer’s farewell match would turn into an exhibition.
It was serious business, and after they were broken early in the second match, Federer and Nadal stormed back and looked set to win in sets, but instead found themselves locked in a tense deciding tie-break as the clock ticked past midnight .
Chants of “Come on, Roger, come on” rang out from the packed stands as Federer and Nadal battled their way to the victory the occasion demanded, but fell short.