After many years of watching Wimbledon semi-finals on Friday evenings in London, I didn’t imagine I would watch a match on a Friday evening in the city that wasn’t on Centre Court at SW19 or on that occasion and yet be something that is much bigger. But then, I don’t think I was the only one unprepared for the occasion. More than 17,000 fans at the O2 Arena and many more across the world shared the feeling of being overwhelmed. We were witnessing a legend walk away from the sport, in a fashion that nobody ever thought he would – not at a Grand Slam, not playing singles and not playing against his greatest rival, but alongside him.

It had been a week since Roger Federer announced his retirement from the sport. A week since everybody who followed tennis were trying to digest that he is done with competitive tennis. It wasn’t going to be easy, but we were going to try our best to cope.

We would realise later that it was not just us fans, but even Roger and Rafa were not prepared for the occasion.

Electric atmosphere

As expected, the O2 arena was buzzing well before the gates were open. The fan zone was packed with people trying their luck at the practice courts, trying to get a sight of the players practice on the glass-walled court outside and the queues (not an unfamiliar sight in this city for tennis) had started forming much before the doors were opened. There was a mad rush to pick up merchandise at every store possible and yet most returned empty-handed and disappointed – the one item in demand, the ever so special “RF” caps, had sold out even before the evening session had started on Day 1 of a three-day event. Maybe even the organizers were underprepared, one wondered.

From the moment the team introductions started and Federer’s turn came to enter the court, it almost seemed like everyone in the entire arena knew we had to cherish every moment of seeing him out there. The standing ovation didn’t stop for a long time post the elaborate introduction with all his stellar achievements being recounted.

A bit later in the night, Andy Murray was rewinding time with some amazing tennis in his match with Alex De Minaur. Both did their best to give us more time to prepare ourselves with their own spectacle while also offering a subtle reminder that there was actual tennis being played this night. But even in those moments, Federer and Nadal enjoying themselves behind the scenes was what was winning our hearts. These two were special, always were, even more so this night.

#Fedal time

When Federer and Nadal – #Fedal – finally walked out onto the court, the fans made sure they heard how special this was. The welcome brought the roof down and it was just the beginning.

The action in itself had some great moments, like Nadal reminded us a few days back – they were on the court together to hopefully win a tennis match. As always, there was the special shot that only Federer could make and leave everybody dumbfounded.

Of course, there was some Nadal magic of constructing impossible points and almost pulling off one that left everyone with some jaws on the floor (one that made Tiafoe walk across the net and had Sock in splits for a while). Late in the match tiebreak, Federer pulled off one of his special shots again that got a large part of the arena on its feet, got his fist bump out and of course the smile came out too after seeing the crowd egging him on as always. Maybe he realissed that there were not going to be many more such moments.

Federer’s ever-present style was there, the fun-loving, tennis-loving child in him was there, his serve was largely immaculate and towards the very end, there was an ace. And there were the frustrating shanks too at tricky points, as was the missed match point on serve in a tie-break that would haunt many of his fans.

It definitely was a throwback to a career filled with these memories.

Not that anybody cared about the result, but when Sock and Tiafoe won, we knew that was it. There was a brief pause before the arena went into what felt like an endless ovation and applause. The arena, and likely the world of tennis from wherever they were watching, was standing on its feet for a man who had swept them off for years with his unmatched presence on the court.

In a match that lasted more than two hours, we had nearly everything we could ask for.


There were tributes thrown in throughout the evening on the big screen, some great videos from Rolex, Moet and other lifetime brands who had driven the Federer roller coaster along with us. But, what followed for the next 30 minutes or so is probably a farewell no sport has ever seen.

Ideally, the winners are expected to make speeches after a match, but it didn’t matter that Federer wasn’t the winner on the night. It was noticeable though as Federer started taking his bows with the team, Nadal already had had tears in his eyes.

The rest of us were getting there.

Jim Courier moved sides to make it clear that there was only going to be one person speaking to him.

And then Federer spoke – managing to get words out to his own surprise by the looks of it. He tried to be poignant and measured as always, thanking everybody and speaking about how special it was to do this one last time with Nadal and how he always wanted to be a part of a “team” after having become an undisputed champion in a sport that was called the loneliest by another great of the past.

Thanking the family was always going to be tricky part. “Oh, we have to go there?” replied Federer when Courier did go there. It was when he was thanking Mirka for letting him do this for so many years that he started bawling inconsolably. Standing in the middle, hiding his face from the rest of us. But he couldn’t speak for much longer, as we saw Nadal sob too.

Courier finally let him go and while there was a special song performance happening, we got the now famous image of Roger and Rafa holding hands, in tears... it broke all the dams that had been held behind the waterworks.

If you ever had to plan for a memorable last day at work, you would probably plan to spend it with your best friend – reliving some old memories and talking about your glory days. This is what this Friday in London was. Federer with Nadal and Novak Djokovic by his side, enjoying these last moments, celebrating each other, spurring each other on.

It was an absolute joy seeing #Fedal on court together, made even more special because Djokovic and Murray were cheering them on as a part of the same team.

When you now find out that Federer had requested Nadal much earlier than the retirement announcement that he would like for his swansong to be alongside him, you realise the amount of respect and love they carried for each other. But this night and the moments that we witnessed revealed that it was something we may never understand. It is a type of rivalry we may never see again in sport.

Friday night witnessed the end of a special career, an end we all knew was coming, but an end we couldn’t have scripted better even in our wildest dreams. It wasn’t just him, his family or his dear friend who were in tears, the tennis world evidently was in tears as they bid farewell to the legend. Nobody tell the younger me from 2001, who was in tears as a teenager hating upon a young Swiss upstart for defeating his then favourite Pistol Pete on Wimbledon’s Center Court, that more than 20 years later my tears wouldn’t stop as he drew curtains on his wonderful career.

Farewell Roger, it was an honour to witness you grace the courts. I will never stop telling people “I was there” when Roger Federer walked off the court one last time as a professional tennis player.

Image: Navin Madhavan /

Also read:

Roger Federer retires: Federer-Nadal go down in thriller, Swiss great bows out in emotional farewell

Growing up with Roger Federer

Thank you Roger Federer, for a tennis experience to last a lifetime

Watch: Roger Federer’s farewell interview – ‘I’d do it all over again,’ ‘Mirka kept me going’

Audio and full text: Roger Federer announces retirement – ‘It’s been an incredible adventure’