Tears and Memories – Roger Federer’s Perfect Journey

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Bill Simons 

There were all the triumphs, there were all the trophies, and there was all the glory. 

And then, past midnight, Jack Sock hit a winner and it all ended in a torrent of tears. 

Not tears for the loss of a doubles tennis match, but tears of sorrow, tears of joy, and tears of relief about a career that at last had come to an end; a career that would give us no more dazzling backhands, no more tense break points, no more breathless comebacks. 

Now there would be no more tears at Wimbledon’s cathedral, on New York’s Ashe arena, on the gritty clay of Paris, or in distant Melbourne. 

But of course the wondrous Swiss magician, Roger Federer, will never be distant from the hearts of tennis lovers everywhere. 

After all, the singular athletic genius and man of astounding grace did too much, inspired too many, and brought so much dignity, wisdom and humanity to us all to ever be forgotten. 

*****  

In 1969, the Beatles went to the top of their Abbey Road headquarters in London to perform the most beloved farewell in music history, When their renowned rooftop concert was over, John Lennon joked, “I hope we passed the audition.”

Tonight at London’s Laver Cup, men’s tennis had its most poignant farewell. 

Yes, Roger Federer and his partner Rafa Nadal lost to Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe, but the beloved duo did pass the audition.

Some 17,500 fans were enthralled. After all, boxing’s Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier never joined together in a ring. Tonight it was as if Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were dancing together.

The Alpine maestro and the Spanish bull have long been compared. Writer S.L. Price noted, “Federer’s game is all about elegance and flow; Nadal disrupts it like a street thug crashing a cotillion. That he does so while oozing testosterone, flexing his biceps in a sleeveless shirt, only seals the image of a man’s man – Marlon Brando to Federer’s Fred Astaire.”

Tennis’s greatest ATP rivals always seemed connected at the hip. Yes, Roger had long been tennis’s reigning alpha male, but a young, well-muscled bull lion seemed to lurk forever in the deep grasses of tennis’s savannah. 

Finally, in 2008, in his sixth year on tour, Rafa subdued Roger at dusk in Wimbledon’s shadows to become No. 1 in the world. Jon Wertheim recalled, “That match had it all: Skill, courage, self-sufficiency, sportsmanship, grace, discipline, gallantry, poise, intelligence, injury, recovery, fibrillations of momentum, even acts of God.”

We’d never seen such inspired dueling swordsmen. Time and again they swapped the No. 1 ranking and they met in 14 Slam finals. When Roger wept in Australia, Rafa comforted him. When Federer cracked up during a commercial shoot, Nadal joined right in. 

Together the two have raised millions for kids. With Novak Djokovic, they were at the center of the GOAT debate. Still, to Roger, it was the sportsmanship and joy of their rivalry that was their true message. “Their respect and their humility shine through,” noted Martina Navratilova.

Tonight tennis’ message to Roger was, “We love you.” This was a tennis love-in that brought to mind Serena’s US Open farewell.

Deep into the first set the rather inconsiderate Team World duo of Sock, who many consider the best doubles player in the world, and Tiafoe threatened to rain on the parade. Rafa complained, “It’s unbelievable when you don’t play doubles how slow you are at the net. I see nothing.” 

Team World had a key breakpoint to go up 5-4, but Nadal stepped up, and Team Europe quickly struck back to collect the first set 6-4. 

To the delight of the crowd, Roger and Rafa had the lead in a match that had a little bit of everything: easy smiles, quick chuckles, mixed signals, flash winners, leaps of joy and an odd Federer forehand that amazingly went through a hole in the side of the net.

The fairy tale was happening. But one American didn’t care. John McEnroe told Sock and Tiafoe not be drawn in by all the hoopla. And in the third game, Sock unleashed one of his rocket forehands and Team World broke to go up 3-1 in the second set. 

But then Tiafoe double-hit a half volley and Team Europe broke back and soon gained a 5-4 lead. “Fedal” then held off six breakpoints in a dramatic, 11-minute game that prompted Pam Shriver to say, “We’ll never see a doubles match like this again.”

As Team World gained the momentum, Novak Dkokovic and the Team Europe bench were glum, Federer’s clan was tense and all the oxygen drained out of the once festive O2 Arena. Team World evened the battle and now Roger’s 24-year career came down to one decisive match tiebreak.  

Incredibly, Nadal, tennis’ most mentally tough player, felt the tension of the moment. This was Roger’s last dance. Rafa had to come through for his friend. The pressure was excruciating. But while Rafa’s level slipped, Sock hit a crazy flick half-volley winner and then another extraordinary volley. 

Federer joked to his teammates that he felt he was playing in slow motion, but actually his forehand was on fire. Team Europe gained a match point, but Tiafoe hit a clutch winner and blasted another forehand past the stunned Spaniard. 

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And then it was over. 

Sock unleashed a forehand past the lunging Rafa to give Team World a shocking, 4-6, 7-6(2), 11-9, victory that denied Federer his fairy tale ending. 

That’s sports – unscripted and often cruel. You just never know anything except that in the end there will be tears. Roger, his wife and family, and even Rafa teared up. 

The great man told the crowd, “I enjoyed tying up my shoes one more time. I’m so happy I made it through the match…And of course playing with Rafa…and having all the legends [here]…It felt lonely for a second, but I’ve felt that I was a team player at heart.” 

Federer’s chest was heaving. His voice quivered. He was pleased just to be able to talk.  

As for tonight, Roger said, “It feels like a celebration…That’s exactly what I wanted. I’m just happy to play tennis and spend time with my friends, and to end here…I would do it all over again. It’s been great. It’s been amazing, so much fun. Thank you everybody. I have had so many people cheer me on.”

Before an epic hug with his wife Mirka, Roger said she “could have stopped me a long time ago, but she kept me going. Then he joked, “We blame my mother for everything because without her I wouldn’t be here.

“It’s just been incredible – my God. It’s been a fantasy night…I’m happy, I’m not sad. It just feels like a celebration. This is exactly what I wanted to feel…It all started with playing tennis with friends and look what happened…It’s been a perfect journey.”

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