LONDON—Roger Federer leaned back on a couch, the picture of relaxation in a navy blue pullover, black jogger pants and white sneakers. He had just showered and changed after a practice session Wednesday at the arena that will be used for the final match of his career, grinning as he talked about getting into the flow with a racket in hand.
“It was funny, hitting on the court—nice lighting, nice everything—how your level starts going up, you know?” he said in an interview with The Associated Press, following a farewell news conference. “Whereas if you play at home, in like just a normal tennis hall, things are fast, the lights aren’t great, advertising is all around you, you can never find this kind of rhythm.”
So is it time to cancel his retirement?
“No,” he said with a laugh. “No. No. No.”
Federer is known for his elegant style of play, for his longevity, for his 20 Grand Slam titles—and for occasional tears in his most emotional post-match moments, whether after victory or defeat.
There was none of that sort of sadness Wednesday, just some chuckles at his own jokes, as Federer discussed his retirement from professional tennis at age 41 after a series of knee operations. He will close his playing days with a doubles match at the Laver Cup on Friday—perhaps alongside longtime rival Rafael Nadal.
Federer said he is at peace with the decision to walk away, which comes a few weeks after Serena Williams played what is expected to be her last match at the US Open, and he wants this farewell to be a celebration.
“I really don’t want it to be a funeral,” Federer said. “I want it to be really happy and powerful and party mode.”
Wearing a blue blazer with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a white polo shirt, Federer took questions from various media outlets during the news conference ahead of the team competition founded by his management company.
“I’m nervous going in, because I haven’t played in so long,” he said. “I hope I can be somewhat competitive.”
Federer, who announced last week via social media that he would be retiring after the Laver Cup, said it took him a bit to get used to the idea of stepping away from competition.
But it was something he understood he needed to do after running into setbacks in July during his rehabilitation from what was his third surgery on his right knee in about 1 1/2 years.
“You try to go to the next level in training, and I could feel it was getting difficult. … Then, I guess, I was also getting more tired, because you have to put more effort into it to be able to sort of believe that it was going to turn around. You start getting too pessimistic. Then I also got a scan back, which wasn’t what I wanted it to be,” Federer explained.
“At some point, you sit down and go, ‘OK, we are at an intersection here, at a crossroad, and you have to take a turn. Which way is it?’ I was not willing to go into the direction of: ‘Let’s risk it all.’ I’m not ready for that. I always said that was never my goal.”
And the hardest part came when he knew he needed to stop.
“You’re sad,” Federer said, “in the very moment when you realize, ‘OK, this is the end.’”
The last procedure on his knee came shortly after a quarterfinal loss to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon in July 2021, which will go into the books as the last singles match of a superlative career that began in the 1990s and included 103 tournament titles, a Davis Cup championship for Switzerland, Olympic medals and hundreds of weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings.
In his online farewell message last week, Federer referred to retirement as a “bittersweet decision.”
He was asked Wednesday at the news conference what aspect was most bitter and what was most sweet.
“The bitterness: You always want to play forever,” he said. “I love being out on court. I love playing against the guys. I love traveling. … It was all perfect. I love my career from every angle.”
And then he added: “The sweet part was that I know everybody has to do it at one point; everybody has to leave the game. It’s been a great, great journey. For that, I’m really grateful.”
He will play doubles for Team Europe against Team World on Day 1 of the event, and then give way to 2021 Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini for singles over the weekend. That plan was run by the ATP and both team captains, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Federer said.
“I grew up watching him, rooting for him, trying to learn from him,” Berrettini said. “His charisma, his class will be missed—everything he brought to tennis on the court and off.”
Those sentiments were echoed by other Laver Cup players, such as 2021 French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas (“My biggest memory of him is watching him lift trophies at almost every Grand Slam he played when I was a kid”) or US Open semifinalist Frances Tiafoe (“I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger—the way he played, and the grace he did it with, and who he is as an individual”).
As for Federer’s doubles partner for the last hurrah? Federer would not say definitively—he said that’s up to Borg—but the not-so-hidden secret is that it is expected to be Nadal, who holds the men’s record of 22 major championships.
While other contemporaries of Federer and stars of the sport are on Team Europe, such as 21-time Slam champ Novak Djokovic and three-time major winner Andy Murray, the Federer vs. Nadal matchup will go down in history as among the greatest rivalries in tennis or any other sport.
They played each other 40 times in all (Nadal won 26), with 14 Grand Slam matchups (Nadal won 10). Nadal came out on top in their classic 2008 Wimbledon final, considered by some the greatest match in history; Federer won their last showdown, in the 2019 semifinals at the All England Club.
“It could be quite, I don’t know, a unique situation, if it were to happen,” Federer said about the doubles pairing.
As for his future?
The father of two sets of twins—girls who are 13; boys who are 8—wouldn’t say exactly what he has planned, other than a vacation, but he did say he would remain connected to tennis in some capacity.
Recalling the way Borg stayed away from the sport for years after retiring, Federer sought to reassure his own fans by saying: “I won’t be a ghost.”
Image credits: AP