Federer: Twelve Final Days – The Inside Tennis Review

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Photo courtesy Federer – Twelve Final Days

A documentary captures the tears and drama of a sports farewell like no other.

Bill Simons

The Hollywood critics were unkind. The much-anticipated film “Federer: Twelve Final Days” was said to be too worshipful. Well, maybe they had a point.

No other athlete in an individual sport since Muhammad Ali has been so adored. In the film, three sisters who’ve gathered at London’s memorable 2022 Laver Cup can’t contain their fan-girl excess: “Roger, we’ve come all the way from Kenya. Please don’t go!”

Of course, the internet went over the top for the man who demolished his foes with gasp inducing precision. “Federer is so mesmerizing.” Then an unbridled English fan gushed: “Roger, we think you are the most wonderful human being there’s ever been. There’s never going to be another one like you!”

Still, the critics held firm. “What a waste,” they claimed, “to do an entire Federer documentary, and just focus on Roger’s last twelve days before his Laver Cup farewell.”

But not really. For starters, the film poignantly amplifies the life and times of the most beloved fellow who ever picked up a racket.

We see the obligatory old-school footage of his hitting groundies as a kid, and Roger as a wide-eyed ball boy, trying not to be overwhelmed by the big stage.

We spot Roger’s bleached adolescent hairdos. We see him win the Wimbledon juniors and we hear the prophetic advise from the announcer Sue Barker in 2003: “Roger Federer: Wimbledon champion – get used to that.”

The film recalls Roger’s generational 2001 Wimbledon win over Pete Sampras. Plus, an array of jaw-dropping Federerian trick shots is put on slow motion display in all their magical glory: inventive tweeners and that fabled leaping, twisting, down-the-line overhead winner off of a smash from Andy Roddick, whom Roger habitually humbled.

Roger gives us a succinct insight into the essence of the game he loves: “Tennis is not a contact sport…[But] we almost touch each other through the ball. You can feel the force of your opponent, whether it’s the spin or the power. How much he grunts…It’s also very much like a chess match, because you start anticipating what’s going to happen, and you get your favorite pattern and so does your opponent. So, it’s always a battle of who gets the pattern his way. I took a lot of joy in trying to beat my opponent at his game. It’s very much a psychological chess match – but it’s physical.”

At the outset of “Twelve Final Days,” we see Roger’s clan gather just as he’s about to announce his retirement. We’ve long known that Federer is a CEO in sneakers, and his well-oiled team has left no stone unturned. This is not merely the retirement of a tennis player. The tennis heavens will now shift forever.

Roger hugs his daughter. He playfully asks his soccer-playing son how many goals he scored today. Then we see the most impactful tennis wife in ATP history, Mirka Federer, who once said of her husband, “I can’t imagine anyone ever waking up every morning being so content with everything.”

Mirka confides she’s “a little happy-sad” that her guy is retiring, before she seamlessly pivots to lay down some tough love. “Take a shower. You smell like a man,” she tells her 8-year-old son.

Few in tennis were more manly than Roger. But often tears humanized his worldwide brand which dances with flawlessness. But early in the film, there are few handkerchiefs as he tells of his botched knee surgery. We get glimpses into his seasoned team, his long-time coach, an appreciative physio and his power-behind-the-throne agent and business partner, Tony Godsick, who notes that in Switzerland it’s raining. “It’s like the Alps are shedding a tear.”

There were few dry eyes when Roger told the world, “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart to everyone around the world who has helped make the dreams of a young Swiss ball kid come true.”

Of course, years ago there were few tears from the Federer camp when a spindly pretender to the throne, boy Novak, began to impinge on Roger and Rafa’s stratospheric duopoly that ruled the game. Federer tells us that his and Rafa’s massive fan bases didn’t need a third guy.

At first, Roger wasn’t that impressed with the raw Serbian. His grip was too extreme, his backhand didn’t flow. But “then he overcame these things and became a hell of a monster player.” And when Centre Court would go bonkers, shrieking “Roger! Roger!” the steely Djokovic would “transmute it and hear nothing but ‘Nole! Nole!’”

Still, Novak’s ferocity changed things. Fans now asked Roger, “Why don’t you fight more when you’re losing?” He said, “I didn’t understand what they meant. What do I have to do? Do I have to grunt? Do I have to shout more? Do I have to be more aggressive to my opponents? I tried, but it was all an act. That was not my personality. For others…it’s more ingrained in their DNA.”

But for all of Novak’s greatness, it was Rafa who was Federer’s greatest rival. Roger confides that the emergence of the young Spaniard (who couldn’t yet look you in the eye) wasn’t easy for him: “I liked being at the top alone. [So], I had to look within. It was a bit of a mind bender. I couldn’t quite figure him out and unlock him.” In contrast to other fierce rivals, Roger and Rafa soon became pals. We see their non-stop giggles, like two impish boys, as they try to deliver their lines for an ad.

In “Twelve Final Days,” Roger’s and Rafa’s deep mutual respect is abundantly clear. We see their team’s camaraderie that always blossoms at the Laver Cup. As the noble spear carriers, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and Casper Ruud, look on from the margins, we get a glimpse into tennis’ inevitable pecking order.

Plus, we get humor. At a dinner, Andy Murray tells the crowd, “The player I’m going to introduce loves to eat plants. He celebrates all his Slam victories by going wild on banana smoothies.” Novak then presents Rafa, saying, “I’ve the honor to introduce someone whose favorite breakfast is clay – and he never shares that breakfast with anyone.”

“Twelve Final Days” culminates when, for his last match, Federer teams with Nadal for doubles. Murray notes, “It only seems right to see Roger and Rafa on the same side of the net to finish as a team.”

But Roger’s fairy tale ending is soon shattered when Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock raise their level at crunch time to dispatch the royal duo.

Oh, well. The surprise defeat only kickstarted a farewell celebration like no other. Roger’s foes lifted him on their shoulders. There were kisses and hugs from Mirka, stirring videos, rousing speeches, torrents of bittersweet tears, and that indelible moment when the teary Roger and Rafa hold hands. (Exhibit A: Toxic masculinity doesn’t completely rule pro sports.)

Nadal tells us, “It’s a very sad day…We’re never going to see again a player with that flow, that perfection, that elegance.” Mirka confides, “I’m just so happy to live with Roger…I’m always going to be there for him.”

Roger said that tennis “has been a great life school. I’ve always been very thankful for everything it taught. But we athletes know we’re on borrowed time…Yes, it’s painful, yes it’s hard, but I’m happy…We’re all very lucky to have lived through it, and I’ve cried together with sixteen and a half thousand people.”

Yes, “Twelve Final Days” is at times worshipful. Then again, Roger’s a man who’s said to bend time and approach incandescence. While he’s been compared with da Vinci, Picasso, Baryshnikov and Steve Jobs, he’s never walked on water. Yet his game, with all its beauty and athletic grace, did engender worship, as he lifted the spirits of millions, from Kalamazoo to Kenya. No wonder a sign at the Miami Open advised, “Commit your sins when Federer is playing. Even God is watching.” 

Photo by Ella Ling

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