LONDON -- This day, this match, had to come, of course, for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it inevitably must for every athlete in every sport.
Federer bid adieu Friday night with one last contest before he heads into retirement at age 41 after a superlative career that spanned nearly a quarter-century and included 20 Grand Slam titles and a statesman's role. He wrapped up his days as a professional player with a loss in doubles alongside his longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.
The truth is that the victors, the statistics and the score (OK, for the record it was 4-6, 7-6 (2), 11-9) did not matter, and were all so entirely beside the point. The occasion was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, the farewells, plural: Federer's to tennis, to the fans, to his competitors and colleagues. And, naturally, each of those entities' farewells to Federer.
"It's been a perfect journey," Federer said. "I would do it all over again."
When the match and, with it, his time in professional tennis ended, Roger hugged Rafa, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then he began crying. There were plenty of tears to go around; Nadal wiped his own away, too.
"When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving, too," said Nadal, 36, who used the words "sad" and "unforgettable" to describe the occasion.
As cascades of clapping and yells of affection came from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. Then he mouthed, "Thank you," while applauding right back toward the spectators who had chanted, "Let's go, Roger! Let's go!" during the concluding moments of a match that lasted more than two hours and ended at about 12:30 a.m.
Mirka, their four children and Roger's parents joined him on the court afterward for embraces and, yes, more bawling. Members of both teams joined together to hoist Federer up in the air.
"It's been a wonderful day. I told the guys I'm happy; I'm not sad," Federer said. "I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time. Everything was the last time."
"For me, just personally, [it was] sad in the first moment, when I came to the conclusion it's the best decision," Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions when realizing it was time to go. "I kind of held it in at first, then fought it off. But I could feel the pain."
He had said he wanted this to feel more like a party than a funeral, and the crowd obliged, rising for a loud and lengthy standing ovation when Federer and Nadal -- each wearing a white bandanna, blue shirt and white shorts -- emerged together from a tunnel leading out to the black court for the last match on Day 1 at the O2 Arena. They remained on their feet for nearly 10 minutes, through the pre-match warmup, holding aloft phone cameras to capture the moment.
They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, some with homemade signs ("Idol Forever" read one), and they made themselves heard with a wall of sound when Federer delivered a forehand volley winner on the match's second point. Similar reactions arrived merely at the chair umpire's announcement before the third game of "Roger Federer to serve," and again when he closed that game with a 117 mph service winner.
"Honestly," he said, acknowledging that leading into the match there were the sorts of nerves he'd get before a Grand Slam final, "I was so surprised how well I was able to play tonight."
Roger vs. Rafa -- just one name apiece required -- belongs up there with McEnroe vs. Borg (as it happens, the two Laver Cup team captains, John and Bjorn), Evert vs. Navratilova, Sampras vs. Agassi, Ali vs. Frazier, Magic vs. Bird, Brady vs. Manning, and so on.
Over the years, Federer and Nadal showed off individual greatness and compelling contrasts across their 40 matches, 14 at Grand Slam tournaments, nine in major finals: righty vs. lefty, attacker vs. grinder, seeming effortlessness vs. relentless intensity.
And yet, there was an unmistakable element of poetry with these two men who challenged each other and elevated each other performing as partners, slapping palms and sharing smiles.
The last hurrah came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 wins in singles matches for Federer, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968. At the height of his powers, he appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005 to 2007. Extend that to 2010, and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.
More than those numbers, folks will remember the powerful forehand, the one-handed backhand, the flawless footwork, the spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, the willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and -- the part of which he's proudest -- the unusual longevity. Beyond the elegance and effectiveness while wielding a racket, Federer's persona made him an ambassador for tennis, someone whose immense popularity helped attract fans.
"This is not the end-end, you know. Life goes on. I'm healthy, I'm happy, everything's great," Federer said, "and this is just a moment in time."