Federer when he came out and grabbed Nadal’s hand: ‘Maybe it’s a secret, thank you’

Newly retired Roger Federer flew back to Switzerland on Monday night after returning from London, where he swiftly wrapped up his competitive career with one final Laver Cup match.

He partnered with friendly rival Rafael Nadal in Team Europe’s doubles, losing a close match to Team World’s Francis Tiafoe and Jack Sock, who also won the Laver Cup for the first time in five attempts.

But the defeat was secondary to the occasion – an emotional farewell to Federer and those around him, including his wife Mirka and their four children, as well as friendly rivals Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Federer, 41, has long established himself as one of the greatest players in tennis history, but after breaking Pete Sampras’ men’s record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles in 2009, he chose to play for another 13 years. He won five other majors, and at the age of 36 became the oldest No. 1 man since the ATP World Rankings appeared in 1973.

His departure marks the beginning of the end of a golden era in the men’s game, as Nadal, Djokovic and Federer developed rich and long-running rivalries, lifting each other and their sport. Federer, despite his longevity and genius in tennis, is now third in the singles title Grand Slam chase behind Nadal with 22 and Djokovic with 21.

Federer was first interviewed in February 2001, in his home city of Basel, Switzerland, when he was still a teenager and had not yet won his first major. Monday night, we talked on the phone about the 21-year-old since his farewell to the competition:

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So, how do you feel now that it’s really over?

I think I feel perfect. I lost my last singles match. I lost my husband’s last match. I lost my voice from shouting and supporting the team. I lost the last time as a team. I lost my job, but I’m very happy. I’m good. I’m really fine. That’s the ironic part, does everyone think of happy fairy tale endings, you know? And for me, it actually ended up like this but in a way I never thought would happen.

Apparently Rafa Nadal went to great lengths to be a part of the action on Friday, given his wife’s pregnancy. What does it mean, knowing everything you know, to be there for you for doubles?

I called him after the US Open – I waited for him to finish that tournament – just to let him know I was retired.

And I just wanted to tell him before he started making some plans without the Laver Cup at all. I told him over the phone that I was probably 50-50 or 60-40 in the doubles business. I told him, “Look, I’ll keep you posted. Let me know how it’s going at home. And we’ll call you back.”

But it soon became clear on the phone, and Rafa told me, “I’ll try everything I can to be there with you.” Obviously, that was unbelievable to me. Show once again how much we mean each other and how much respect we hold. And I think it’s just going to be a beautiful, amazing story for us, for the sport, for tennis, and maybe beyond as well, where we can live through a tough competition and come out on top and show that, hey, again it’s just tennis. Yes, it’s hard, and it’s brutal sometimes, but it’s always fair. And you can go out on the other side and still have that great friendly rivalry. I thought it ended up doing better than I thought it would be. So, an incredible effort by Rafa, and obviously I will never forget what he did for me in London.

Those raw feelings after the match were strong for many people around the world, especially the scenes with you and Rafa. Do you think you might have changed the way people view male athletes?

I think I’ve always had a hard time controlling my emotions and winning and losing. At first, it was about anger, sadness and crying. And then, I was happy to cry about my victories. I think on Friday, that was another animal, to be honest, because I think all men – Andy [Murray], Novak and Rafa too – they saw their careers flash before their eyes, knowing that we all somehow had wasted time long enough already. As you get older, reaching your thirties, you begin to learn what you really value in life but also from sports.

Did you see a picture of you and Rafa sitting on the bench crying and holding hands?

I have seen him.

How does this picture look?

Well, I mean, it was a short moment. I think at one point, I was crying so hard, I don’t know, it was all on my mind about how happy I was to experience this moment with everyone. And I think that’s what was so nice just sitting there, enjoying everything while the music was on, and maybe focusing more on it. [the singer Ellie Goulding]. So, you almost forgot that you are still taking pictures. I guess at some point, just because I obviously couldn’t talk and the music was there, I think I just touched it, and I think maybe it’s a secret, thank you. I don’t know what it was, but to me, that’s probably what it was and how it felt and some pictures came out of it. different. Not only that, but other things as well, it was just totally crazy, you know, from different angles, and I hope I get it because it means a lot to me.

In that moment when you talk to your kids and tell them, I’m not crying because I’m sad. I cry because I am happy. I think any parent could relate to that.

I didn’t know people could hear that. They seemed very sad to me, and when I told them I was retired, the three of them were crying too, because they thought I was sad because of it, but I really am not. And of course, a moment like this is very powerful in the arena. It was hard not to cry at some point, and it wasn’t just hard for them.

The world has dried up.

We have to recharge those tears.

I said, “It’s time to stop. I can feel it.” Is it mostly based on feeling like you can’t move the way you need to navigate a round anymore to compete?

This is part of it. It’s age too, let’s be honest. And when going to the end, I don’t see the goal. I’ve tried a lot in the past few years and that’s okay. As you know, everything is good. And it gets to a point where, you know, when I had the surgery last year, I knew it was going to be a long way back. It could take me probably a year.

So, of course, in my dream, I saw myself playing again, but I was very realistic about coming back. Number one, I did it for my personal life. I knew it was the right thing to do: Let’s fix this leg and all that. Therefore, I had to do a proper rehabilitation. If I just retire, I know I’m not going to rehabilitate properly. So, if I keep active and I’m still a professional tennis player, I know I’ll do it 100% right. And I keep the options open to hope I can get back to at least show tennis, at least 250 seconds and hopefully in the 500 and 1000 if all goes really well. And Grand Slam if magic happens.

Over time, I felt less and less chance that the knee was creating problems for me while I struggled for power. And that’s when I finally said, Look, it’s okay, I accept that. Because I left it all there. Nothing more to prove.

I’ve rarely shown it, but what percentage of matches have you played over the years that you’ve been feeling a little sore?

I think we all play sick and hurt. I’ve always had the impression that I can play through some pain, a lot of pain, like we all have to. But I think my body has always felt very good. I knew when I could force and when I had to be careful. And I’ve always been of the opinion that I’d rather take the rest at some point: give myself an extra week, an extra day, an extra hour, an extra month, whatever it is, and take it easy, go back to training and come back strong again. That’s why I tried to avoid any kind of injections and operations for the longest time until I had to have surgery in 2016.

I know you’ve been joking with your teammates in London about your lack of mobility, but are you confident now that you’ve played doubles that your body will allow you to play show tennis?

I have to go back to the drawing board now and see after this amazing weekend, what I have to do next.

I think it would be nice to have an exhibition match somehow, you know, and I thank the fans, because obviously the Laver Cup was already sold out before I knew I was going to retire. A lot of people would have loved to get more tickets and couldn’t, so I feel like maybe it would be a good idea to have a more or less farewell fair, but I’m not sure if I can do that now. But obviously I’d like to run fairs down the road, take tennis to new places or bring it back to fun places where I enjoyed it.

When you walk away, do you see anyone playing the game like you?

not now. Obviously, he must be a one-handed man. By the way, no one needs to play like me. People also thought I was going to play like Pete Sampras, and I didn’t. I think everyone should have their own version. And not imitation, although copying is the biggest sign of flattery. But I hope they all find themselves, and tennis will be great. I am sure that I will always be the first fan of the game. And I’ll follow, sometimes in the stands, sometimes on TV, but of course, I hope there’s enough one-handed, enough offensive tennis, enough flair. But I will sit back, relax and watch the game from a different angle.

Meanwhile, your opponents are playing. You said it’s important to retire first because you’re the oldest. Were you worried that Rafa would hit you this spring when he was considering retirement due to his foot problems?

I got scared of Murray too. I vividly remember when I saw him in the locker room in Australia in 2019 after the Bautista match [referring to Roberto Bautista Agut]. I remember him saying, “Maybe I’m done.” We were asked to make farewell videos; I had a chance to go. I went up to him and asked, “Are you really serious?” And I remember him saying to me, “Well, with that thigh, I can’t play anymore.” Therefore, he knew that he was at a major crossroads in his life. But yeah, I’m glad I’m going first, because I’m supposed to go first. So, that’s why you feel good. And I hope they can all play as long as possible and squeeze that lemon. I really wish them the best.

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