One of the many times Roger Federer cried during the trophy presentation ceremony was at the 2006 Australian Open. After beating Marcos Baghdatis 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2, Federer was announced on to the victory podium as the only man, apart from Pete Sampras, to win three majors in a row (Sampras won the 1993 Wimbledon, 1993 US Open and 1994 Australian Open) since Rod Laver in 1969. Laver presented the trophy to Federer in the arena named after him. Federer melted into a puddle of tears.
“I have had some horrid speeches but this one is a little rough right now,” he mumbled. Still to gain the polish and oratory of his later years, the Swiss managed to congratulate Baghdatis, thank his team and the sponsors. “And then last but not the least, I would like to thank Rod Laver for the trophy.” More tears. He hugged Laver once again and sneaked away from the spotlight.
While a lot of tennis players have idols and an understanding of its history, very rarely had we seen one so visibly moved by it. Perhaps Federer inherited the reverence for Laver from his former coach, the late Peter Carter, an Australian himself. Genius recognises genius.
But it is the Swiss maestro’s very public hero worship of the great man that has made a whole generation of tennis fans peer into the pages of history to look up Laver and his achievements. They learnt that Rod “Rocket” Laver is the only man in the sport to have won the Grand Slam twice, the first as an amateur in 1962 and then as a professional in 1969 (Open Era began in 1968).
Federer makes it okay to be a nerd. Would he be half the tennis player he is without an appreciation of the sport and its tradition? His game bridges the gap between past and present, suspended in between in its timeless beauty. Likewise, Federer himself is adept at striking connections, between past and future, fans and stakeholders, seniors and juniors. In a fractured, individualistic tennis world, Federer was often the common ground.
A very real manifestation of his tribute to the past, celebration of the present and embrace of the future is the Laver Cup, whose fifth edition is being staged at London’s O2 Arena this weekend (23-25 September). The Cup was conceptualised by Federer and his management firm, Team 8. It will also mark Federer’s last professional tournament.
A tribute and safety net
“I feel the likes of Rod Laver and other legends of the game have marked our sport in such a big way and it should never be forgotten,” Federer said in August 2017, a month ahead of the Cup’s inaugural edition. “I have gotten to know Rod over the years. He’s a lovely man and he has been incredibly supportive of our generation of players too. He always comes and watches us play. That’s when the idea came about to sort of pay tribute to the likes of Rod Laver and then also the present and also the future coming through. Getting all the generations together, I think, is a wonderful thing.”
The Laver Cup pits Team Europe versus Team World. With no parallel in tennis, it’s built on the lines of golf’s Ryder Cup, a trophy Europe and America compete for. Over the years, it has experimented with the feel and look of the sport—remember the grey court?—and tested new scoring formats. Even if it is just for three days in a year, it has given players the safety net of a team—outside of their natural national bonding—in a deeply individual sport.
“Life on the tour is different, you don’t get to mix up too much with your biggest rivals for obvious reasons, but Laver Cup is a competition that unites us all,” Novak Djokovic said in 2018. “Friendships were formed and friendships were stronger after that competition.”
Though the Swiss turned 41 last year and has spent the last 15 months in rehabilitation after knee surgery, the announcement of his retirement last week came as a sucker punch. It felt like the end of something vital. For 24 years, Federer had defined and redefined excellence. Perfection even. Not just in the way tennis should be played, but the way tennis players should conduct themselves. He ushered in the era of genteel. And he ushered in the super generation of men’s tennis, led by the Big 3 (Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic).
At his peak, from 2003-10, he made tennis and winning look effortless. Starting with Wimbledon 2003, with grass an apt canvas for his artistry, he won 16 Grand Slams. In the later years, he dug deep to defy time and the rest of the field.
Federer caught the second wind in 2017, returning a few months after knee surgery to win the Australian Open against his biggest rival, Nadal, in a five-set thriller. In 2018, at the age of 36, he rose to No.1 again, 14 years after he had first done so. At the age of 37, he came within a point of winning Wimbledon against world No.1 Djokovic. He finished with a total of 20 Grand Slam titles, 103 tour titles, 310 weeks at No.1, 1,251 career wins, 1,526 matches and 0 retirements. Federer never robbed his rival of a fair win.
“He’s the epitome of what you would want your kid to be when they grew up,” John McEnroe said of Federer recently. “And he’s the most beautiful player I have ever watched play. I idolised (Rod) Laver. He’s kind of an updated Laver to me.”
It’s perhaps fitting then that Federer has decided to walk away from the sport not at a Grand Slam, the most coveted stage in tennis, or at his home event, Basel Open, where he started off as a ball boy, but at the Laver Cup, which is more of a glitzy exhibition event. It is in London, amidst some of the greatest players in history—from Laver to team captains Björn Borg (Europe) and John McEnroe (World) to his keenest rivals, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray, to future stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud—that Federer will say goodbye to the sport he so dearly loves.
There couldn’t have been a better farewell vehicle. For, in many ways the tournament is a snapshot of the best the game has to offer. Not just in terms of talent, but the thrill and camaraderie. The Laver Cup, Federer’s version of tennis utopia. Of how he sees the sport, of how he wants to leave it.
Roger Federer transcended tennis. But he never acted like he was bigger than it.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.