Present for the great man's professional farewell at the Laver Cup, I can look back with fondness at 21 years of joy

Roger Federer after his last match at the Laver Cup
Roger Federer bids farewell to the crowd after his last professional match | Getty

It has taken me a while to come to terms with Roger Federer’s retirement.

While I endlessly watched, wrote and spoke about the maestro’s departure from professional tennis ahead of the event, the loss only dawned on me in the back of a lounge in London. It was no ordinary lounge though, as I was immensely privileged to experience Federer’s last contest in person at the Laver Cup. Being there only made the emotions more acute.

Often, we casually speak about loss in an effort to prevent feelings rising to the surface. On the tournament’s first night, as the 41-year-old’s last dance unfolded, my deeply held feelings escaped. While the first set brought a tear, the second delivered a proper breakdown. For a while, I hid in the shadows and cried. It was hard to stop.

While there in a professional capacity, I finally allowed the truth to hit me.

One of my great heroes would no longer astonish arenas - and this writer - as he had done for more than two decades. We would never again get to witness the smooth footwork, impeccable technique or genius shots. This was it. A Federer performance would never again be the highlight of my day, they would now live on solely as highlights.

So I cried.

But then, after a sombre time contemplating the future, I allowed myself to enjoy the present. I was in an arena with only 20,000 others to see the Swiss suit up one last time. Amazingly, he was playing alongside the man who brought him so much pain on court but who now figures as a good friend: Rafael Nadal. If it’s possible to top that off, the two other defining men of his era (Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) cheered for him at courtside while legends like Rod Laver and Stefan Edberg watched from the stands.

How many millions wished they were there to witness it, be they fans, players or press? How much would someone have paid to nab a seat? I saw six figures on a resale site and I believed it.

There, I was able to contemplate how long this relationship has lasted.

My ticket on the Fed Express was first punched back in 2001 when I was 13. Back then, I was already a tennis fanatic but temporarily unable to play due to a rare hip condition called Perthes.

Andre Agassi was my first tennis idol. He’s the reason why I use a two-handed backhand, attempt to take the ball far too early and prefer Nike clothing on court. But as the American’s career reached its finish, Federer was a ready made replacement.

While Agassi had a set of extraordinary tools to work with, the young Swiss could already do everything. Not only that, he did it all with such style. There were very few racquets thrown or angry tirades. He just coolly dissected opponents and had a voracious appetite for trophies. By 2007, Federer was already a legend in his mid twenties. The man from Basel notched his 10th career major at that year’s Australian Open and added another at Wimbledon.

That summer, now a student and healthy, I was on a J1 Visa in the USA. While I stayed in New Jersey, as much time as possible was spent in New York City. My trip overlapped with the US Open (which wasn’t entirely a coincidence). Without too much trouble, I acquired a day ticket for the first round on Arthur Ashe and finally got the chance to watch the man in person.

Roger Federer at the 2007 US Open
Forgive the quality of this pic as I couldn't afford a decent camera as a student! Here's Federer at the 2007 US Open when I first saw him live | Crosscourt View

This was Federer’s golden period and his unfortunate victim for the day was the young American Scoville Jenkins. The world no.1 had silent feet, weaved his magic and took the match comfortably in straight sets. Naturally, this was no contest. However, an intellectual in the crowd felt differently and yelled “Suck it up Scoville! Suck it up!” throughout its short duration. If only the world no.319 had improved his (perfectly fine) attitude. Things could have gone so differently!

Around that time, I was studying journalism and had a natural inclination towards sport. I was fairly clear at the time about my dream: I wanted to ask Roger Federer a question at a Wimbledon press conference as a real journalist. That would signify that I made it.

As the years progressed, my life and career went in all sorts of interesting directions but I did not get the chance to see my hero in action again until 2019. By that stage, I had seen one Federer match in person and hundreds on screen. I had probably viewed almost every grand slam match he played during that span and as many tour events as I could manage. From the glorious night matches in New York, when he danced under the lights, to the drudgery of those dispiriting battles with Nadal in Paris, and his sheer genius on the grass of Centre Court: I had watched it all from afar.

Then, the year before the world turned upside down, I created a plan and thankfully followed through on it. I attended the first week of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. While my first experience in Paris was superb, I did not get to witness the King of Clay, let alone Federer. But in London, I had another shot and I was extremely lucky.

While bored out of my mind in the famous Queue on the first Tuesday, I had my phone out and eyes glued to the screen. It was approaching midday and at that point, Ticketmaster released some returned tickets for the show courts. Like Federer awaiting a short ball, I was ready to pounce.

A single ticket for Court no.1 popped up and I nabbed it. It was quite a sight as I had to navigate the card transaction, my camera and bag while holding a place in the line. I managed it though and secured a seat for the second court on the following Thursday. That was significant because I knew that Federer would play somewhere on the day. In a remarkable circumstance that year, Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams were all drawn to play on the second, fourth and sixth days etc. Given their advancing years and status, anything on a show court for those days was a privilege.

On Wednesday evening, I remember sitting in a cafe when the order of play for Thursday was officially released on the app. I opened the PDF and I’ve rarely felt joy like it. Court no.1 spectators would be treated to not just Federer but Serena and Petra Kvitova (another favourite) too. As it turned out, the returning Andy Murray was added to the line-up at the last minute in doubles!

Roger Federer at Wimbledon 2019
A little closer with a better camera, here's Federer at Wimbledon 2019 | Crosscourt View

12 years after the first time in New York, I got to watch the great man again. This time, he played another unheralded home player. While the movement was still serene, I most remember the accuracy and depth of Federer’s shots that day. The lethality of his forehand was another awesome sight in person.

Even then, I knew this was a wonderful once-off. I was privileged to see not only Federer but his fellow icon Serena. Sadly, that feeling only grew as the pandemic took hold the following year. 2019 was the last time that both Federer and Williams resembled their best playing selves. The Swiss of course lost that heartbreaking five set final to Djokovic at SW19, while Williams was brushed aside by an imperious Simona Halep in the Ladies’ final.

With 15 crowns between them at that point, 2019 proved to be the last Wimbledon finals for both Federer and Williams.

In early 2020, Federer underwent knee surgery in February, and again in the summer. With only six matches played for the season, he ended his campaign early to recuperate and prepare for 2021. Unfortunately, while the following season brought more matches there were further complications with the knee. The Swiss was clearly suffering in June as Felix Auger-Aliassime overwhelmed him in Halle, the tournament he had won more than anyone else.

Then at Wimbledon, there was the sad spectacle of Federer struggling to move as Hubert Hurkacz bageled him in the third and final set of their quarter-final. We would not see him again on court for over a year, and then it was to say goodbye.

Given its billing as the first (and likely only) time that Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray would play together on the same team, the 2022 Laver Cup was always going to be special. But when Federer announced that he would retire after it, the event’s significance went into overdrive. My press pass on behalf of RTÉ Radio had been sorted weeks beforehand and in the runup, I either hid at home or wore a mask at work just in case. This was something I could not miss. As it turned out, my dream came true on the first day.

Federer’s retirement press conference was arranged for Wednesday morning that week. I was booked to arrive in London later that day. So after changing my flight and adding another night in a hotel, I made it on time. In the press room, I was a few rows back as my departing hero walked in. There were some pre-prepared questions ready on my phone and I was determined to at least put my hand up to ask one.

As the conference wore on, I started to panic as time was running out and they may not get to me at all. Then, almost miraculously in hindsight, I got to ask the second last question in the final press conference of Federer’s professional career. And it went well:

My question for Roger Federer at his final press conference | Tennis Channel

After that, the rest of the week was a bonus tinged with sadness. During the practice session on Thursday, I couldn’t believe that I was watching the Big Four casually playing together on the same court. On Friday, the early matches were excellent appetisers ahead of the grand spectacle at the evening’s end.

Amongst everything else that happened during and after that doubles match, I’ll never forget the scene of Federer and Nadal overwhelmed with tears on the player’s bench while Djokovic attempted to console the former with pats on the shoulder. It’s a sight I never imagined seeing but I’m delighted that it happened. The bond that these three gladiators had forged between the lines over so many years had morphed into something wholesome.

By the end of the week, I was on a high in the midst of a tremendous low for the sport. Tennis’s greatest ambassador and one of its finest ever players had left the stage. But it didn’t feel like a moment of mourning any more. Federer left in a grand celebration with his fiercest rivals by his side and watched on by family, friends, tennis greats and a packed arena of adoring spectators.

As for this writer, it was a privilege to be present and share a small moment with my tennis hero before he headed off to a new life.

Thank you Roger for all the years of joy you’ve given me. The question was worth the wait.

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