The 2003 tabloid headline “Roger the Blubberer” may have to be revisited after Roger Federer’s last match ended in the most emotional scenes this side of The Railway Children.
Interviewed by Jim Courier after his doubles collaboration with Rafael Nadal, Federer managed only a few sentences before the tears started to flow.
Federer did his best to choke them back, but without much success. As Courier kept probing away, he ended up doubled over, his hands on his knees, and a small puddle forming around his feet.
The question that really broke Federer – as one might have expected – related to his family, who were all waiting on the sidelines.
“My wife is so supportive,” he managed to stammer out. “She could have stopped me a long, long time ago, but she didn't. She kept me going and allowed me to play. Thank you.”
As for his tennis, Federer declared: “It has been a perfect journey. I would do it all over again.” And he thanked all the people who have cheered for him over the years – a tally that must run well into the millions.
The emotional clout of the whole occasion was only accentuated by the way that Nadal also found himself overcome by emotion. Once the Courier interview had ended, pop star Ellie Goulding walked out to deliver a couple of hits.
During her performance, these two legends of the game sat on their chairs at courtside and sobbed away uncontrollably.
"What I will remember is the faces I saw emotional ," said Federer later, as he answered reporters' questions in the interview room. "The part I was extremely worried about, is taking the microphone. I know how impossible I am on the mic when I am emotional, because I had it many times before.
"But I was able to remind myself always on the court again how wonderful this is. This is not the end-end, you know, life goes on. I'm healthy, I'm happy, everything's great, and this is just a moment in time, you know. This is obviously supposed to be like this."
Amid such scenes, the doubles contest itself faded quickly from the memory. The important thing was that Federer managed to negotiate a narrow 4-6, 7-6, 11-9 defeat without breaking down. “I thought something was gonna go,” he told Courier. “Pop a calf or block a back or something in the match, so I am so happy I made it through.”
Despite Federer’s sluggish movement around the court – the result of the cranky right knee which has forced him into retirement at the age of 41 – he and Nadal fought gallantly against the young American pairing of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.
They even had a match point at 9-8 in the super tie-break at the end. It came on Federer’s serve, too, but he couldn’t land his first delivery and a bold poaching volley from Tiafoe helped win the point for the World team. Moments later, Sock fired a forehand winner up the line to seal victory.
Had Federer and Nadal been playing for a grand-slam trophy, this might have been the moment to bring out that old cliché “There are no fairytales in sport.” In this instance, however, the result felt completely irrelevant. And the true fairytale was the way in which Federer was able to say farewell alongside his oldest rival, while other tennis legends like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray watched on from the sidelines.
At the end of the match, Federer went around hugging every member of each team, and then hugged the Europeans a second time for good measure.
It was telling that Martina Navratilova, commentating for the American audience, wished that she had been able to finish her own career by playing doubles with her own greatest rival Chris Evert.
Once Goulding had finished her performance, the other players gathered around Federer in the middle of the court and lifted him unsteadily onto their shoulders, before giving him the bumps in the manner of a ten-year-old at his own birthday party.
Then the announcer finally indicated to the crowd that it was time – with the clock approaching 1am – for them to drag themselves away. “There’s so much love in this house,” he observed.
Barely a member of the 17,500-strong crowd had left until this moment, despite the challenges of finding a way home from south-east London in the small hours. Transport issues be damned: no-one here was prepared to give up a single second of Federer’s last hurrah.
They all wanted to squeeze every second out of what has been one of the greatest sporting stories ever told. And they were rewarded with the ultimate tearjerker.
Federer has never been afraid to show his emotions, ever since he broke down during his original Wimbledon acceptance speech in 2003. As Sue Barker told Telegraph Sport last week, he still jokingly blames her for making him cry. Now he can tease Courier on the same grounds as well.
Roger Federer plays his final match, as it happened
More from Federer
Everyone's here, the boys and girls. My wife has been so supportive. She could have stopped me a long, long time ago but she didn't. She kept me going and allowed me to play, so it's amazing - thank you.
It's funny, we always blame my mum for everything because without her I wouldn't be here of course. Thanks to my parents, they've been amazing.
Just everybody, there are too many people to thank. It's been incredible.
It's been a wonderful day. I told the guys I'm happy, not sad. It feels great to be here. I enjoyed tying my shoelaces one more, every thing was the last time.
I didn't feel the stress so much even though I thought maybe something was going to go, like a calf, but the match was great.
Playing with Rafa and having all the greats here, all the legends, thank you.
Federer/Nadal 6-4, 6-7, (9-9) Sock/Tiafoe - MATCH TIEBREAK
Big Sock forehand and Federer can't get the ball back in play, 6-7. Federer volley winner, 7-7. Tiafoe drills a forehand at Federer and the 41-year-old can't get out of the way in time, 7-8. Tiafoe backhand into the net, 8-8.
Tiafore backhand into the net, 8-9. Federer serves for the match but nets a forehand, 9-9.
Federer/Nadal 6-4, 6-7, (6-6) Sock/Tiafoe - MATCH TIEBREAK
Jaw dropping hands from Sock to flick a scoop a volley winner over the net, 3-4. Tiafoe nets a backhand, 4-4.
Sock slips but gets his racket on the ball and Federer can't react quick enough, 4-5. Nadal volley winner, 5-5.
Federer backhand return long, 6-6.
Federer/Nadal* 6-4, 6-6 Sock/Tiafoe (*denotes next server)
Tiafoe volley into the net, 30-30. Great anticipation by Nadal but he flicks a forehand just wide, 40-30.
Tiafoe forehand volley into the net, deuce. Tiafore volley clips the net and drops on Europe's side, very lucky.
And into a tiebreak we go after Federer nets a backhand.
Federer/Nadal 6-4, 6-5 Sock/Tiafoe* (*denotes next server)
Trouble for Europe as Tiafoe dominates the net and finishes with drive backhand, 0-30. Nadal's forehand clips the net and drops wide, three break points.
Tiafoe just misses with a backhand, 15-40. Sock forehand long on the third. Nadal double fault, fourth break point.
Federer holds his nerve and finishes with an overhead winner.
Blistering return by Tiafoe and Federer doesn't even move, fifth break point. Nadal drills a forehand and Tiafoe nets.
Incredible point and World comes out on top with a deft volley winner, sixth break point. Saved again when Sock nets a forehand. THE TENSION!
Relief for Europe as they finally hold after a return error from team World. They've guaranteed themselves a tiebreak at least.
Federer/Nadal 6-4, 5-4 Sock/Tiafoe* (*denotes next server)
Federer continues to be imperious on serve tonight. He races to 30-0 with a couple of first serves. But he is pegged back to 30-30 by a Tiafoe overhead winner.
Tiafoe forehand long, 40-30. More groans from the crowd as Nadal nets a volley, deuce.
A pat on Federer's back from Nadal when Europe holds after a Sock error.
Federer/Nadal* 6-4, 3-3 Sock/Tiafoe (*denotes next server)
Here's Tiafoe to serve, with the first point going the way of Team Europe when Nadal smashes an overhead winner down the middle, celebrating with a massive fist pump, much to the crowd's delight.
Tiafoe returns the favour on the next but then can only dump into the net for 15-30. Another mistake brings up two break points and it's taken by Team Europe in unusual circumstances when Tiafoe is penalised for seemingly hitting the ball at the net with his arm.
Federer/Nadal* 6-4, 1-3 Sock/Tiafoe (*denotes next server)
Deep Federer return and Sock shanks a forehand wide, 0-30. Sock forehand into the net, 15-40. Federer stretches for a forehand but misses, deuce.
Sock forehand long, third break point. Federer runs around his forehand but gets it wrong and the ball flies wide.
Federer/Nadal 6-4, 1-2 Sock*/Tiafoe (*denotes next server)
Nadal whips a forehand just wide, 0-30. What a return by Tiafoe, drilled at Nadal's feet and the Spaniard can't react in time, three break points.
Nadal saves the first with a forehand winner. Then the second with an ace. Federer volley long and Team World breaks.
Federer*/Nadal 6-4 Sock/Tiafoe (*denotes next server)
Sharp reaction by Federer and he catches out Sock with a volley, 0-15. Tiafoe responds with an ace, 15-15.
Nadal puts a forehand long after being forced to react quickly. But he responds with an angled forehand winner, 40-30.
Sock shanks a volley off a Federer backhand return, deuce. Deep Nadal return and Federer finishes with a forehand volley winner, set point.
Sock forehand volley into the net, Europe breaks to take the set.
First Set: Federer/Nadal 1-0 Sock/Tiafoe* (*denotes next server)
Nadal thinks he's hit a second serve ace but Sock challenges it and hawkeye says the ball was out.
Federer gets Europe on the board with a clean volley winner, 15-15. Sock forehand into the net, 40-15.
Europe start strongly when Sock fails to make his return1
Federer's retirement leaves a void that can't be filled
Tennis legend John McEnroe was effusive in his praise of Federer ahead of the tournament:
I remember six years ago when he limped off the court at Wimbledon, didn't play for six months, and ended up winning three majors in the next 18 months.
Then he had match point on Novak at Wimbledon (2019), two of them. So this is beyond belief what him and the other two guys have done."
Laver Cup rules
The Laver Cup is a three-day tournament pitting a team of six of the best tennis players from Europe against six of their counterparts from the rest of the World.
The tournament is named in honor of Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, the only man to win two calendar year grand slams.
Each match win will be worth:
- one point on Friday
- two points on Saturday
- three points on Sunday
- The first team to reach 13 points will win the Laver Cup. In the event of a tie after all 12 matches are played, a final overtime doubles match - a Decider - is played
Great rivals have become great friends
Nicknamed 'Fedal', Federer and Nadal have a legitimate bromance together. And it is fitting that Federer's final match as a professional tennis player will be with the man who he has shared so many special moments with on a tennis court.
It's a different kind of pressure. After all the amazing things that we shared together on and off court, to be part of this historic moment is going to be something amazing, unforgettable for me. I hope I can have a good chance to play at a decent level, and hopefully together we can create a good moment and maybe win a match. So let's see.
Of course being on court, having Roger next to me one more time will be something that I am very much looking forward to. I'm just very happy for that. It's going to be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. For me, too. You know, at the end one of the most important players, if not the most important player, in my tennis career, is leaving. I'm going to try to do my best in every single way, to help to have this moment even more special than what it's going to be."
Andy Murray kicks off the night session
Andy Murray returns to the O2 for the first time since winning the 2016 ATP Finals. He will open the night session for Europe against World's Alex de Minaur.
De Minaur won the last meeting in 2019 and the Australian, nicknamed Speed Demon, will be a stern test for the Briton.
Roger Federer's farewell
By Simon Briggs
Roger Federer has admitted the realisation that he would never win another Wimbledon title reduced him to tears last summer.
The 41-year-old, who announced last week that he would be retiring after the ongoing Laver Cup, revealed he broke down after losing to Felix Auger Aliassime in the build-up to his final Wimbledon in 2021.
Feeding off the majesty of his serve, he could still come forward and win short points. But once his opponent gained the upper hand in a rally, he was no longer able to scramble balls back for long.
“When I lost to Felix in Halle [in June 2021], I cried after the match [as] I knew I will not win Wimbledon,” Federer explained. “You come to a certain point where against certain players that are of the good level, you create too many moments of having to defend. [But] there’s nothing left in defence. So I had to play extra offensive and just try to weasel my way through the matches this way.”
It might seem strange to imagine Federer – the male record-holder for Wimbledon titles – having to “weasel his way” through matches, especially on grass. But if we look back at that 2021 Wimbledon, he needed a bit of help in his first-round meeting with the awkward Adrian Mannarino, only moving through when Mannarino fell and sprained his knee while leading by two sets to one.
After more encouraging victories over Richard Gasquet, Cameron Norrie and Lorenzo Sonego, Federer’s singles career ended in the quarter-finals, where Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz stopped him in straight sets.
It is testimony to the ruthlessness of sport that Federer went out with a 6-0 bagel set, just as Donald Bradman registered a duck in his final innings and Usain Bolt pulled a hamstring in the 4x100m relay.
“The end of that match was one of the worst moments of my career because I really felt awful,” said Federer. “It was over, the knee was gone, and then knowing I had to face the media right afterwards in a short amount of time was really hard. But for me, it is what it is. You know you can’t turn back the time and go, ‘Oh, we should have changed this.’
“And that’s why I’m so happy that on my left knee [which had undergone a similar operation four years earlier] I was able to come back and win another three slams, including that comeback win in 2017 in Australia.
“Because I’d had a good experience with my left, I figured, ‘Okay, my right is a very similar surgery. We’ll do that and maybe I’ll get another chance.’ Look, it wasn’t to be, and then obviously the last three years have been pretty tough. You deal with it. Going through rehab, daily progress is small, but I want to be healthy for life. So it was definitely worth it.”
Federer admitted that he regrets his decision to undergo surgery on his right knee in February 2020. As he told reporters at the O2 Arena this week, he has never regained the fluid movement of old, despite the best part of 18 months rehab.
“When I came back [from the 2020 Australian Open] I was so unhappy with my knee and I had been unhappy for several years,” Federer explained. “So maybe doing that surgery, maybe I shouldn’t have in hindsight. But then maybe what could have happened is I would have played and it would have exploded at some moment.
“In that moment, I was 100 per cent convinced it was the right thing to do. I did the surgery, which was successful, and then six weeks later, I have to do another one because something’s wrong again. I mean, this stuff you just can’t predict. There’s always a risk when you open something. That’s why I always said, ‘It’s the beginning of the end once you have had surgery.’”