For more than 20 years, Roger Federer lit up the ATP Tour. The Swiss star spent 310 weeks at No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and won 20 Grand Slam titles as he rewrote the record books with his precise and seemingly effortless style.
On Friday, the 41-year-old will strike his final shots when he takes to court in a doubles match at the Laver Cup in London. With the world set to watch, no one will have a better view than longtime rival and friend Rafael Nadal, who will partner Federer in the clash for Team Europe.
“Tomorrow [is] going [to] be a special thing,” Nadal said during Thursday’s pre-tournament press conference. “I think a very difficult, difficult one. [It is] going to be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. For me too. In the end, [he is] one of the most important players, if not the most important player in my tennis career and [he is] leaving. This moment will be difficult. Of course I am super excited and grateful to play with him.”
Nadal soared onto the scene in 2005 at a time when Federer had already won four Grand Slam titles. Despite the Swiss being a dominant force at the time, Nadal immediately troubled Federer, winning six of their first seven meetings. They would go on to play 40 times, pushing each other to their limits in titanic battles. For the Spaniard, his relationship with Federer is very special.
“I think the memories that Roger brings to the sport, in my personal way, are not only the matches against me. I saw him playing comfortably before I arrived on Tour,” Nadal said. “I saw him having success on TV, and then I was able to have an amazing, create an amazing rivalry together.
“On the other hand, something that we are very proud of is [that it] has been a friendly rivalry. Not easy sometimes, because we are playing for such important things for our tennis career, but at the same time we were able to understand that in the end, personal relationships are more important than sometimes professional things. We were able to handle it I think the proper way.”
Nadal later added: “He is probably one of the most if not the most important player in the history of this sport that is leaving after super great and super long career.”
Federer will end his historic 25-year career surrounded by players he has called rivals for many seasons. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and alternate Cameron Norrie are all competing for Team Europe this week and will be on the sidelines to cheer Federer on during his last dance at The O2.
Murray is relishing the occasion and the opportunity to say goodbye to a legend of the sport.
“I think tomorrow is going to be an incredible atmosphere,” said Murray, who will face Alex de Minaur before the doubles match. “Obviously playing in the night session before Roger and Rafa, I think it’s going to be really special.”
Djokovic faced Federer 50 times and is looking forward to competing with the Swiss star one final time.
“I think as everybody said, this is probably the most special moment that I guess we all individually and collectively experienced or will experience,” Djokovic said. “Laver Cup is the only competition where we get a chance to be teammates and not rivals and things being even more unique and special because of Roger’s last match. So the excitement is incredible.
“Most of us have watched and admired Roger’s success and achievements before coming on the Tour. Some later, some earlier. But we will do our best to contribute to the team and a good performance, but at the same time marvel and celebrate his career, because he deserves it in a great way.”
The Serbian faced Federer in his first Grand Slam final in 2007 at the US Open. Despite losing, Djokovic recalled the clash as one of his most memorable against the Swiss.
“I’ll pick my first Grand Slam final, US Open 2007,” Djokovic said. “I lost that match. That was the first Grand Slam final obviously, was [a] remarkable experience for me at the time. Kind of the first match that allowed me to believe that I belonged to that level.”
Nadal revealed that the 2017 Australian Open final stands out from his matches against the Swiss maestro, while Murray recalled the epic 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal as a personal highlight.
“I think honestly the 2017 final in Australia was [a] very special one, because [of the] significance,” Nadal said. “[A] few months before we were together, injured, talking about… how the things are going to be, if we are going to be able to be back on The tour at this level, and few months later we are playing the final in Australia, five-set match.”
“I was actually in the stands watching the Rafa & Roger Wimbledon final,” Murray said. “I actually left when it started raining, and I missed the end. I watched it obviously at home, but for me, I went in with some of my friends to watch that one, to watch that one live. I know it’s probably the obvious one, but for me, that would be a match that obviously sticks out and one I was actually present at.”
Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images for Laver Cup