As Roger Federer prepares to say farewell to competitive tennis on Friday, teaming up with his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, for one last doubles match, his millions of adoring fans around the world are bracing themselves for what is sure to be an emotional weekend.
Federer’s legendary, 24-year career will come to an end at the Laver Cup, where the Swiss maestro is part of Team Europe along with the other members of the so-called tennis Big Four: Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 22, 2022
They will take on Team World at London’s O2 Arena, which witnessed numerous battles between the formidable European quartet during the years it served as host venue for the season-ending ATP Finals.
London is also where Federer claimed 11 percent of his career victories, lifted the Wimbledon trophy eight times, and clinched two of his six ATP Finals titles.
As such, it is one of many places around the globe that have played a significant part in Federer’s storied career, during which he gained unrivaled popularity that made it seem like he had home-court advantage wherever he competed.
As we reflect on that career, it is impossible to ignore Federer’s connection to the Middle East, especially Dubai, which for nearly 15 years was considered his second home.
He first competed at the Dubai Tennis Championships and the Qatar Open in Doha in 2002. After a visit to the UAE in 2004 he decided to buy an apartment there and use it as a second base for training at various points during the tennis season.
“On the way back from Bangkok, when I beat (Andy) Roddick in the finals there, I came through Dubai, met up with Tony Roche for a practice session, sort of an undercover operation,” Federer once said of that 2004 trip.
“I remember it was brutally hot, I think like 39 degrees every day. I had a good time practicing. It was peace and quiet and I kind of enjoyed it here. I think I came back one more time for a vacation and practiced some more. I was like, I think this works well for practice and leisure.
“The next thing I knew, I had an apartment. It all happened quite quickly. It was funny how it all worked out.”
Between 2002 and 2019, Federer competed in the Dubai Tennis Championships 14 times. He retires with a 53-6 win-loss record there, and lifted the trophy eight times. It is one of four tournaments he has won eight or more times, the others being the Halle Open (10), the Swiss Indoors (10) and Wimbledon (eight).
While Federer has played to sell-out crowds at stadiums the world over and enjoyed a tremendous amount of support from fans at each and every venue, his supporters in Dubai treated him like a local hero because essentially that is what he was. The annual tennis tournament there became one of the most-attended sporting events on the emirate’s busy calendar in large part because of him.
A video recently shared by the Tennis Channel showed a match in Dubai between Tomas Berdych and Borna Coric that was temporarily halted early in the first set because of a noisy commotion coming from outside the stadium. The reason? Federer had arrived and was being mobbed by screaming fans looking for autographs and photos taken with him.
Federer’s last appearance at the Dubai tournament, in 2019, recorded its own slice of tennis history when he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final to claim the 100th title of his career.
In some ways it was a “full-circle” moment as it came 17 years after Federer first competed in the emirate, a debut in which he was accused of tanking by the tournament director, who tried to withhold his prize money.
Reflecting on that 2002 controversy after his victory in 2019, Federer said: “Tanking second round? I played frustrated the last couple of games in the match against Rainer Schuettler because I was young and crazy. I was so fed up with my game. I just started to go for big shots.
“The tournament director wasn’t happy with what he saw. Anyway, he withheld everything but the tour said, ‘No chance you can do this. Roger tried, so it’s all good.’
“Then I came back the next year, wanted to prove a point. I ended up going for four in a row, so … that’s what happens sometimes. You have to learn it the hard way.”
It wasn’t long before Federer became a serial winner not only in Dubai but on all of the sport’s grandest stages.
Along the way he would stop off in the UAE for preseason training and would even practice there in the summer, sometimes, to build endurance and stamina in the extreme heat.
He was regularly spotted on the courts at Al-Qasr or Meydan. He frequented popular restaurants such as Tasha’s or Flamingo Room. He even invited young players to train with him from time to time. Soon, other players started to follow his lead and use Dubai as a training base.
“Maybe I set the trend a little bit,” Federer said in 2015. “I’m very happy I took that decision and I’m sure it’s helped me, in the process, to be mentally more sane as well on the tour. Knowing I have a place to come back to, I can leave my bags, I come home and feel like, maybe I’m not in Switzerland but it still feels a little bit like home. It’s been good for me.”
Federer’s most striking moment in Dubai did not come during competition. Instead, it took place in 2005 when he played tennis with Andre Agassi on a court laid out on the helipad of the seven-star Burj Al-Arab hotel, 690 feet above the ground. Video footage of the spectacle, which was organized to promote the Dubai Tennis Championships, is arguably among the most watched in all of sports. Organizers claim it has been viewed more than three billion times.
“I didn’t know at the time when we were doing this that it was going to have such an impact,” said Federer.
“I had an idea of how we could make it better by making sure we had a helicopter that was going to film it all around to really show what kind of a platform we were playing on, instead of maybe just having a picture taken from the hotel where you couldn’t really tell how high up we are. And I think that made one of the differences.
“And ever since, everybody talks about it and I hear stories of people saying, ‘Can we play tennis here at the tennis court?’ And they tell them, ‘We don’t have one.’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, I know you do.’ It’s just a myth now, which is fantastic.”
This weekend’s action in London at the Laver Cup is shaping up to be something very special. On Thursday, Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic shared a court during a doubles practice session in front of packed stands at the O2.
Federer and Nadal will take on Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock in a doubles match on Friday. It is set to be Federer’s only game during the event and will mark the last time the 41-year-old plays a competitive professional game.
“It would be safe to say that everyone would like to be part of that (doubles match),” Team World captain John McEnroe said on Thursday.
“No one was running away from that one, believe me. I don’t think it gets a whole lot more exciting than that, to be part of sort of history. We had to flip some coins there.”
For Federer, ending his career at a team event such as a Laver Cup and partnering with his fiercest rival for his final match is the kind farewell party he was hoping for.
“I was in a very worried, scared place to face the music, the media, the fans and everything, being able to talk about it in a normal fashion without getting emotional, just because I know how much it means to me,” Federer said of his retirement.
“But I feel like I probably went through a lot of different stages — I don’t know if you can call it grieving — and then you get to, I really don’t want it to be a funeral. I want it to be really happy and powerful and party mode, rather than the other side.”
Judging by the photo Federer shared online on Thursday of the Big Four on a boat in tuxedos as they headed to the Laver Cup Gala, the party has already started.