Roger Federer will draw the curtains on his amazing career tonight at the Laver Cup playing a doubles match alongside his great rival and friend, Rafael Nadal. Whilst the meaning behind playing alongside Rafa won't be lost on many, the Laver Cup actually represents a more fitting end than some might realise.
Federer has long been the blueprint for how players should conduct themselves on and off the court. His decision to step away from Nike due to them only valuing him as a player nearing the end of his career lead him to explore other avenues. His reported $300m deal with Uniqlo was agreed with retirement in mind. No retirement clause in a ten year deal for an athlete who was in his late thirties would usually be seen as insanity, in this case it showed Federer's worth as an ambassador on or off the court.
He also brought into On, a running shoe company from Switzerland. Federer played a big role in designing and marketing On’s first tennis shoe and the company generally. His 3% share in the company cost him $54m but following growth in the business his share is now worth $330m. Two absolutely huge business decisions made at the tail end of his career helped him earn far more than he had in his prime.
His undeniable love for the game and his desire for the sport to keep growing has made him the perfect ambassador for tennis over the past 24 years. One of the reasons why this is a fitting end to his career is that the Laver Cup was actually Federer’s idea. A way to cement the legacy of all time great, Rod Laver, as well as a solution to help make team competitions more of a spectacle. The black courts, the promotion for the event and the uniqueness of the best players in the world coaching their fellow teammates has helped the Laver Cup become of the best events on the tennis calendar.
Federer will of course be remembered more for his playing career - a career which I think will be looked back on in two stages. In the first stage he quickly established himself as almost undoubtedly the best tennis player of all time. He was smashing all sorts of records all whilst playing the most attractive brand of tennis the game had ever seen. The all court style of tennis which emerged from the shadows of the serve and volley era was almost personified by Federer.
The second half of his career saw Novak and Rafa close in on and eventually surpass many of his records. The conversations switched towards how Federer didn’t need the statistics to show that he was the greatest of all time. The artistry, elegance and the way he conducted himself both on and off the court made Federer a fan favourite almost everywhere.
It was in that second stage of his career where I think many, including myself, had their strongest connection to Federer. A lot of fans viewed the grand slam titles as the biggest factor in the GOAT debate. As Nadal and Djokovic closed in on Federer’s record the stakes had never felt higher, every slam Roger won almost counted for two as it would separate himself from Rafa and Novak.
Watching him had also become harder as well. Whilst the tennis was still beautiful and the way he evolved his game was quite magnificent - Federer didn’t seem to have it in the biggest of moments. At his peak it felt like he could win titles in second gear, now he had to be at the top of his game to have a chance. He had a quite frankly awful break point conversion rate, he couldn’t move as well as he used to, especially when defending, and he took some really tough defeats. All of this made the wins even sweeter though.
The one that stands out was the 2017 Australian Open Final against Rafa, a match which many correctly predicted would be the last ‘Fedal’ matchup in a slam final. Very few tennis matches feel absolutely and unequivocally box office, this was undoubtedly one of those matches.
I remember I had gone out the night before to celebrate Jamie’s 18th birthday and we both stayed up to watch the match. Sleep deprived, maybe a little drunk from the night before and emotionally tortured from the 3 hours and 27 minutes of tennis beforehand, I remember both of us being out of our seats cheering as Federer crunched that forehand down the line to set up break point at 4-3 in the 5th set before going onto win his 18th Slam. It’s one of those sporting moments that gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. I look back on that whole match with the same kind of nostalgia that Ted from How I Met Your Mother would, an episode which would be titled ‘The night that Jamie and Federer turned 18’.
In his retirement announcement, Federer finished by saying - ‘To the game of tennis, I love you and I will never leave you.’ Whilst speculation flies around about Federer taking on commentary roles and ambassador positions, for one final time tonight, Federer will let his tennis do the talking.