He is 41. Of course, this was on the cards.
But when Roger Federer announced on Thursday – via audio and a letter written to the people he met along the way, as he put it – that it was time to put a full stop to his competitive career, it still hit hard. The Laver Cup in London is set to be his final event on tour.
“I will play more tennis in the future, of course, but just not in Grand Slams or on the tour,” he added. And then he ended the letter with the words, “Finally, to the game of tennis: I love you and will never leave you.”
Even while announcing his retirement, Federer wanted to let the millions of tennis fans around the world know he will be present. He will still be around, there and thereabouts. Kinda. Sorta.
Just not at the Australian Open, which he had once won after spending months away from the circuit, and saying he would be okay with losing against his greatest rival, and that he would take a draw if it was possible.
Just not at Roland Garros, where he toiled hard for years as his friend, the King of Clay reigned supreme, but did manage to claim the crown once.
Just not at the US Open, where he is still the last man to win back-to-back (-to-back-to-back-to-back) titles when he went unbeaten at The Big Apple from 2004 to 2008.
Just not at Wimbledon, where he is the eight-time champion. As someone behind Wimbledon’s social media asked very pertinently, “Roger, Where do we begin?”
During the parade of the champions at SW19 this year to celebrate 100 years of Centre Court, Federer emerged through the redesigned doorway. “The door from which the players traditionally emerge - previously hidden by a green canvas screen and two redundant camera positions - is now a grander set of double doors that usher the players directly from the clubhouse on to the hallowed green turf,” as per the tournament’s website, was one of the changes for the centenary celebrations.
So, he walked on to the court, like never before. Through a new entrance, for a grand entrance. Wearing a dark suit and tie, but white shoes, to the court where he graced with many variations of all-white over the years. From defeating Pete Sampras, his idol, as an upstart to winning and losing some epic battles, and then, finally, a 0-6 in what will now go down as the last set he played at a Grand Slam, SW19 has been witness to some of the most defining moments of Federer’s glorious career.
When he stood next to Djokovic and shared a few laughs, the Centre Court roared. He almost did not make it to this event, he’d say afterward. But here he was, on paper, still an active player, at a venue he made his own for so long. Waving and soaking it all in, as the ovation carried on.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of matches on this court,” he said when called up on to speak.
“Feels awkward to be here today in a different type of role, but it’s great to be here with, like Novak said, with all the other champions. This Court has given me my biggest wins, my biggest losses. One of my highlights of course, in 2001 and walking out here with Pete Sampras, who I would like to give a big shout out to. He’s also one that has inspired a lot of us to play and just tried to also be successful here. And represent the sport well. I hope I did that and I hope I can come back like you said one more time.”
That one more time is now not going to happen. But perhaps it is romantic that he got to make another appearance at this court after bowing out with a bagel.For those of us who see sport as an emotional experience, as a window into feeling joy and sorrow through what happens on the field of play, it is nice to know he got this afternoon of celebration at SW 19. Sport doesn’t always allow its great champions to bow out with the perfect triumph.
As far as Centre Court farewells go, however, standing next to some of the greatest champions the sport has seen and revelling in the history of it all – of which he has always been a great student – is a nice way to bow out.
The matches and titles he won can be counted but Federer gave us countless moments on court that made us feel something inside. Love, is probably one word to describe that. It is that feeling of watching Federer play that many will miss the most.
But there were also occasions in recent times, where he battled hard and found ways to win, for the want of a better word, ugly. If his last appearance at Wimbledon saw him lose a set 0-6, his last appearance at Roland Garros was a hard-fought win in front of empty stands, struggling past Dominik Koepfer in the round of 32. A human experience that made Andy Murray tweet, “Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of two knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30 am getting fired up is inspirational to me. Do what you love.”
Even when not his very best, Federer inspired.
“The last 24 years on tour have been an incredible adventure. While it sometimes feels like it went by in 24 hours, it has also been so deep and magical that it seems as if I’ve already lived a full lifetime,” he wrote.
In the days and weeks and months and years to come, tributes will flow for Federer. About this deep and magical adventure he speaks about, about his game, about his triumphs, about his near-misses and heartbreaks, about his grace on the court and impact off it, about his place among the game’s greats.
But for now, thank you Roger Federer, for all the highs and even the lows, and through it all, making the sport a surreal experience to watch. Thank you Roger Federer, for a tennis experience to last a lifetime for many who grew up watching you.
“I have laughed and cried, felt joy and pain, and most of all I have felt incredibly alive,” he wrote to his fans in the letter.
So many of us could say the same to him. The pleasure has been ours, Roger Federer.