Friday September 23rd, 8pm
London will continue to wear its mourning weeds into a third weekend, as the regal entity of Roger Federer prepares for a final procession before his adoring subjects at the O2 Arena.
The chance to see Federer play his last competitive match before he retires – a doubles fixture with long-time friend and rival, Rafael Nadal, on Friday night – has made the Laver Cup an unexpectedly molten ticket.
The debate over who is the real GOAT will no doubt rumble on, but it is clear to me that although Federer will finish behind both Nadal and Novak Djokovic in terms of total Grand Slams won, his overall impact on the sport will remain the most significant.
When Federer began his rise through the ranks, the tennis world was in a state of flux.
Pete Sampras had been the dominant global force throughout the 90s, with a power-dependent style which excelled on grass courts, but was blunted on slower surfaces. After winning his 14th Grand Slam at the US Open in 2002, Sampras surprisingly retired – perhaps content in the knowledge that his record-breaking tally of majors would never be surpassed?
The French Open, during this period, was something of an outlier. In the 10 years following 1993 only one winner was a genuine global household name: Andre Agassi in 1999.
The sport was fractured: top players – such as Gustavo Kuerten and Marcelo Ríos – would echo the famous ‘grass is for cows’ mantra, and choose to skip Wimbledon altogether.
The various codes would be spectacularly unified, however, on July 6th 2003, when Federer lifted his first Grand Slam trophy at the All England Club. The goal in tennis from this point onwards was very simple: to dominate all tournaments on all surfaces.
But it wasn’t just the quantity of titles Federer claimed as he kick-started this new era – between October 2003 and October 2005 he won a remarkable 24 finals in a row – rather the manner in which he did so. This was the very opposite of winning ugly; it was triomphe avec panache, excellence of execution.
The big-serving players were artfully neutralised; the clay specialists sent skulking back to their dull potter’s wheels. The mould had been broken, a new template forged, a megastar born.
And all sports need their megastars: the ones that sell tickets and subscription packages, the rare figures who transcend their craft and can be recognised across the globe; even by those strange people who don’t even watch sport.
How will tennis survive in the post-Federer age? Well, Nadal and Djokovic are still there to hold the fort; though the Spaniard’s body is making ominous creaking noises, and Novak’s hand-drawn COVID pass keeps getting rejected at airport turnstiles.
Recent US Open champion Carlos Alcaraz has the youth, attitude, and crowd-pleasing repertoire to help plug some of the incoming void; as well as a bourgeoning rivalry with classy Italian, Jannik Sinner.
But Federer’s appeal was so universal and so profound, it is unlikely to ever be replicated in quite the same way.
Choosing to get the band back together for one last show will certainly make this year’s Laver Cup memorable – not since the Australian Open in 2019 have Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray competed at the same time.
But will future editions mean anything without Federer as an active participant? The competition – set-up by the 20-time Grand Slam champ, and his management company TEAM8, and pitched as a Ryder Cup for tennis – already looks increasingly like an unfair fight due to Europe’s thorough global domination of the sport.
Perhaps Team World can capitalise on the valedictory atmosphere in London and spring a surprise? Perhaps seeing Federer on a tennis court is more important than who wins this weekend anyway?
Whatever the outcome: the Swiss will be missed. Tennis will be diminished.
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