Roger Federer, newly retired, was back in Switzerland on Monday night after flying home from London, where he wrapped up a whirlwind farewell to his competitive career with one last match at the Laver Cup. He partnered with his friendly rival Rafael Nadal in doubles for Team Europe, losing a close match to Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World, which also went on to win the Laver Cup for the first time in five attempts. But the defeat was secondary to the occasion — an intense, emotional goodbye for Federer and those surrounding him, including his wife, Mirka, and their four children, plus Nadal and another friendly rival, Novak Djokovic.
Federer (41) established himself long ago as one of the greatest players in tennis history, but after breaking Pete Sampras’ men’s record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles in 2009, he chose to play on for 13 more years. He won five more majors and at age 36 became the oldest men’s No 1 since the advent of the ATP rankings in 1973.
His departure marks the beginning of the end of a golden age in the men’s game in which Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have developed rich and long-running rivalries, lifting each other and their sport. Federer, for all his longevity and tennis genius, now ranks third in the Grand Slam singles titles chase behind Nadal with 22 and Djokovic with 21.
I first interviewed Federer in February 2001, in his home city of Basle in Switzerland when he was still a teenager and had yet to win his first major. On Monday night, we spoke by telephone about the 21 years since and his goodbye to competition:
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: So, how do you feel now that it’s really over?
A: I think I feel complete. I lost my last singles match. I lost my last doubles match. I lost my voice from screaming and supporting the team. I lost the last time as a team. I lost my job, but I’m very happy. I’m good. I’m really good. That’s the ironic part, is everybody thinks about happy fairy-tale endings, you know? And for me, actually it ended up being that but in a way that I never thought was going to happen.
Q: Rafa Nadal clearly made a big effort to be part of the event on Friday, given his wife’s pregnancy. What did it mean, knowing all that you knew, for him to be there for you for the doubles?
A: I called him after the US Open — I waited for him to finish that tournament — just to let him know about my retirement. And I just wanted to let him know before he started making some plans without the Laver Cup at all. I told him on the phone that I was probably 50-50 or 60-40 on making the doubles. I told him, “Look, I’ll keep you posted. You let me know how things are at home. And we’ll reconnect.”
But it very quickly got clear on the phone, and Rafa told me, “I will try everything I possibly can to be there with you”. And that felt obviously incredible for me. And it showed again how much we mean to one another and how much respect we have. And I just thought it would be just a beautiful, amazing story for us, for sports, for tennis, and maybe beyond that as well, where we can coexist in a tough rivalry and come out on top and show that, hey, again it’s just tennis. Yes, it’s hard, and it’s brutal sometimes, but it’s always fair. And you can come out on the other side and still have this great, friendly rivalry. I just thought it ended up even better than I ever thought it would. So, an incredible effort by Rafa, and I’ll obviously never forget what he did for me in London.
Q: Those raw emotions after the match were powerful for a lot of people around the world, particularly the scenes with you and Rafa. Do you think you maybe changed the way people view male athletes?
A: I think I have always had a hard time keeping my emotions in check, winning and losing. In the beginning, it was more about being angry and sad and crying. And then, I was happy-crying about my wins. I think on Friday, this was another animal, to be honest, because I think all of the guys — Andy [Murray], Novak and also Rafa — saw their careers flashing in front of their eyes, knowing that we all in a way have been on borrowed time for long enough already. As you get older, you get into your 30s, you start knowing what you really appreciate in life but also from the sport.
Q: Have you seen the photo of you and Rafa sitting on the bench crying and holding hands?
A: I have seen it.
Q: What’s it like to look at that image?
A: Well, I mean, it was a short moment. I think at one point, I was sobbing so hard, and I don’t know, everything was going through my mind about how happy I am to actually experience this moment right there with everybody. And I think that’s what was so beautiful about just sitting there, taking it all in while the music was playing, and the focus was maybe more on her [singer Ellie Goulding]. So, you almost forgot that you’re still being taken pictures of. I guess at one point, just because obviously I couldn’t speak and the music was there, I guess I just touched him, and I guess it’s maybe a secret thank you. I don’t know what it was, but for me, that’s maybe what it was and how it felt and some pictures came out of it. Different ones. Not just that one but other ones, too, that were just completely crazy, you know, so with different angles, and I hope to get those because they mean a lot to me.
Q: You’ve said, “It’s time to stop. I can feel it.” Is that mostly based on feeling you just can’t move the way you need to move on tour any more to compete?
A: That’s part of it. It’s also the age, let’s be honest. And going to the very end of it, I don’t see the point. I tried so long the last few years that it’s fine. You know, it’s all good. And you get to a point where, you know, when I did the surgery last year I knew it was going be a long road back. And it was going to take me probably a year.
So, of course, in my dream, I saw myself playing again, but I was very realistic about the comeback. Number one, I did it for my personal life. I knew it was the right thing to do: Let’s get this leg fixed and all that. For that, I had to do a proper rehab. If I just retire, I know I will not do my rehab correctly. So, if I stay active and I’m still a professional tennis player, I know I will do it 100 per cent right. And I keep the options open to hopefully maybe return to exhibition tennis at least, 250s hopefully, 500s and 1000s if things really go super well. And Grand Slams if, you know, magic happens.
As time went by, I could feel less and less chance as the knee was creating problems for me as I was struggling to power through. And that’s when I ultimately said, look, it’s okay, I accept it. Because I left it all out there. Nothing more to prove.
Q: Meanwhile, your rivals play on. You said it was important to retire first as you are the oldest. Were you worried Rafa would beat you to it this spring when he was considering retirement because of his foot problems?
A: I got a scare with Murray, too. I remember vividly when I saw him in the locker room in Australia in 2019 after his Bautista match [referring to Roberto Bautista Agut]. I remember he said, “I might be done.” We were asked to do farewell videos; I had a chance to go. I went up to him and asked him, “Are you like seriously done?” And I remember him telling me, “Well, with this hip, I can’t play any more.” So, he knew he was at a huge crossroads in his life. But yeah, I’m happy I could go first, because I also am supposed to go first. So, that’s why it’s felt good. And I hope they can all play as long as possible and squeeze that lemon out. I really wish the best for them.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.