The end of an unmatched era of tennis has arrived. With Serena Williams’ probable retirement from the sport earlier this month and Carlos Alcaraz’s first Grand Slam win at the U.S. Open, it was clear that the tide of a new generation of players was on the horizon. Roger Federer’s impending retirement solidifies that realization and brings about the closing stages of a golden age of tennis that Federer has exemplified throughout his entire career.
The 41-year-old tennis legend announced on Thursday, Sept. 15 over Instagram and Twitter that he would be retiring from the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour following the Laver Cup. The annual tournament, which Federer himself helped bring to fruition, will be held for the fifth time from Friday, Sept. 23 to Sunday, Sept. 25 in London.
The Swiss player will have no shortage of titles and records to look back on after the end of his professional career, beginning with his 20 Grand Slam titles, a number that puts him third in the race for most major titles. He held the No. 1 ranking on the ATP Tour for 310 weeks and a record 237 consecutive weeks. In addition to his 103 career singles titles, Federer also won the doubles gold at the 2008 Olympics with fellow Switzerland native Stan Wawrinka and the singles silver at the 2012 Olympics. His first Grand Slam title came in 2003 at Wimbledon, where he has won a record eight men’s singles titles.
Federer’s tennis career, though, will always be more than his incredible statistical achievements. Looking back on his life as a tennis player is certain to bring up the name of the man who has unquestionably been his greatest rival over the years: Rafael Nadal. The two first met on the tennis court in 2004 at the Miami Open, when Nadal—who was just beginning his incredible burst into the tennis world—beat Federer in straight sets, making it clear that he would become one of the greatest obstacles Federer would face over the remainder of his career.
Over the years, Nadal and Federer have met 40 times, with their head-to-head sitting at 24–1 in Nadal’s favor as Federer retires. The two have run into each other at every major except the U.S. Open, and have continuously prevented each other from increasing their Grand Slam count over the years. It took Federer until 2009 to complete his career Grand Slam, when he finally won the French Open after three years of consecutive runner-up finishes thanks to Nadal.
Federer and Nadal are the only pair of men to have finished six consecutive calendar years in the top two rankings on the ATP tour, which they achieved from 2005 to 2010. While their last meeting was in the semifinals of Wimbledon 2019, where Federer went on to a heartbreaking five-set defeat to Novak Djokovic in the final, the two have seen countless epic battles over the years. Their rivalry is and will continue to remain storied, with their relationship both on and off the court always a joy to witness.
While Federer’s rise to the top of the game seemed unchallengeable in his earlier years, Nadal and Djokovic soon became the dominant rivalry of the ATP tour during the 2010s, with Andy Murray also becoming a major threat on the court. The story of Federer’s later career years at the tail end of that period, however, will always be glorious to remember. After a difficult period from 2015–16 for both Federer and Nadal, the two made an incredible comeback from 2017 onwards to climb back to the top of the tennis world. Federer won the 2017 Australian Open in an epic five-set final against Nadal, along with a record eighth Wimbledon championship later that year, while his rival would take the other two majors by winning the French Open and US Open.
Incredibly, Federer became the older men’s No. 1 player in history at age 36, before he and Nadal ended the year back at the very top of the game, with Nadal ranked No. 1 and Federer ranked No. 2 to finish an unbelievable seventh calendar year as the top two ranked players on the ATP Tour. The pair’s resurgence would lead Federer to earn his record-extending 20th Grand Slam at the 2018 Australian Open, the major title that would ultimately be his final Grand Slam.
Following his retirement from the tour, Federer will be long remembered for his playing style, which flows with elegance even as he sprints to make a volley or hits an ace. His one-handed backhand is particularly beautiful to watch, whether he plays it at the net or from the baseline. Everything about Federer’s play makes tennis look easy, and the way he hides the extreme athleticism behind every point he plays turns his time on court into an art. For many fans, Federer has come to represent the sport of tennis itself through his aesthetic playing style and charming, sociable personality on court.
This gracefulness of play has contributed to the oppositional nature of his rivalry with Nadal: Federer’s often silent, fluid tennis playing contrasts sharply on the tennis court with Nadal’s physical, tireless game. With all their differences on court, however, the two have shared a unique relationship in the sporting world that will remain an indelible part of both of their careers.
“I wish this day would have never come,” Nadal wrote in a message on Twitter following Federer’s announcement.“It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world. It’s been a pleasure but also an honor and privilege to share all these years with you, living so many amazing moments on and off the court. We will have many more moments to share together in the future, there are still lots of things to do together, we know that.”
At the 2022 Laver Cup, Federer and Nadal are set to play doubles together for Team Europe, which, incredibly, includes all members of the Big Four of men’s tennis. The chance to partner his greatest sporting rival and close friend on the tour in his final professional match is a fitting end to Federer’s time on court. Federer will be remembered for his incredible career, his grace on court, and his relationship with his rivals, but most significantly for what he has done for the sport of tennis. Roger Federer has cemented his mark on the history of tennis forever.
Jem Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.