The stage is set and the props are set for the final act of the Roger Federer extravaganza on Friday night. Andy Murray spoke on behalf of all of tennis when he said: “I think it will be emotional.”
With a packed house of more than 15,000 fans gathering at the O2 Arena on Thursday to watch Federer practice, this weekend’s Laver Cup has already been upgraded from a fringe event to blockbuster status.
You may wonder which match in London will attract more global interest this year: the Wimbledon final or Federer’s retirement from doubles, which is now confirmed in the staff.
Nadal is as expected to join Federer, while American duo Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock form the opposition. Asked about the challenge on Thursday, Tiafoe joked, “I’m just excited to play two newcomers.”
Even Nadal sounded nervous, having flown in as late as possible due to the delicate condition of his heavily pregnant wife Maria Francisca Perello.
“It’s going to be difficult to handle everything,” said Nadal, “certainly for Roger, no doubt. Also for me. One of the most important players, if not the most important player in my tennis career, is leaving, right?”
Among the World team – who are eager not to be cast as the villains of the play on Friday – one sentence keeps popping up. When they instinctively refer to Federer’s “last dance,” they are reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s flight to the 1998 NBA championships, which bequeathed a popular Netflix documentary of the same name.
The comparison – like everything else this weekend – is bittersweet. While it accurately reflects Federer’s position in the ultimate sports pantheon (Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Usain Bolt, you know), it also draws attention to the main weakness of the coming weekend. The inevitable truth that there is nothing important to play for.
In an ideal world, Federer would have liked to fight for his sporting life in a major tournament – just like Serena Williams did when she saved five match points in a tumultuous final against Alja Tomljanovic at the recent US Open. Instead, he pushes his ruined knee through what is essentially a double exhibition.
Still, at least Federer’s long farewell has given the fifth edition of the Laver Cup a goal that has been missing until now. And the low-stakes environment of the O2 Arena provides the perfect setting for a man whose 41-year-old body is finally broken. The fact that Federer himself co-founded this event in 2017 suggests he can add “seeing the future” to his long list of achievements.
Backstage, the social media team enjoys the Laver Cup in the presence of the so-called Big Four, who are coming together for the first time in the European team. Even before the tournament kicks off, we’ve already seen them share a court for a doubles, pile up in the Tower of London for a smart private dinner and discuss local architecture while strolling along the South Bank.
“What happened to it?” asks Murray in a short video, looking up at The Shard’s pointed tip. “That’s right. It’s like a broken glass,” replies Federer. Even now that these multimillionaires are in their mid-thirties, he still feels like daddy. As if to underline the point, Novak Djokovic, the eternal younger brother, cheerfully shouts from the sidelines: “Andy, he’s teaching you about London!”
Murray is here in exalted company. Ten years ago, he earned his place among the big boys at the majors, reaching the semifinals at least nine times in a span of ten slams. Now he’s left way back in the rear-view mirror by the other three as they amassed the mind-boggling combined total of 63 major titles.
But Federer still clearly considers Murray a worthy member of the gang. So it’s as if he’s been given support on Friday night and will play singles against Australian Alex de Minaur at 7pm before the evening’s main event kicks off.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Murray praised Federer for the typically meticulous scripting of his own exit. “The way Roger has done it,” Murray said, “he seems to be doing a lot of things right. That is also something we can all learn from.
“There are a lot of emotions going around with all the players,” Murray added. “I can imagine it will be incredibly difficult for Roger, but for many players it will be tough. Mainly [because] we are all proud and excited to be part of this team and to be here for his final game. It feels good that this is the way he will end his career.”