Federer figures Nadal, Djokovic will pass him

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Roger Federer, for one, figures questions about whether Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic – or both? – will surpass his men’s record for most Grand Slam singles titles are moot.

That’s because he’s sure it’s going to happen. And he’s OK with that. Ending up in third place, Federer insists, would be just fine.

“I think the way it’s going, obviously, Rafa and Novak will win more,” Federer said matter-of-factly during a recent interview with The Associated Press in the city he uses as his preseason training base, “because they’re that good. And the season they had (in 2019), again, shows that there is more to come for them.”

He didn’t say this with a wistful sigh or a disappointed glance at the floor or a trace of regret. That’s just the way he sees things at the moment. Entering the Australian Open, scheduled to begin Monday in Melbourne (Sunday EST), Federer leads the list with 20 majors, followed by Nadal with 19, then Djokovic with 16.

So as soon as the end of this tournament, Nadal could pull even with Federer for the first time. Whether or not it truly matters who comes out on top when all is said and done, everyone is going to be paying attention to how it shakes out.

Including Federer, who surpassed Pete Sampras’ old standard of 14 a decade ago.

Don’t mistake an honest outlook for disinterest.

“I guess you do care, to some extent, just because it’s normal,” Federer said, then mentioned how much it meant to him that Sampras was sitting in the Centre Court stands for No. 15.

“I looked up to him so much that I felt, also, uncomfortable maybe, sometimes, breaking his records. It’s not something I ever wanted to do. It just happened to be like this. But of course I knew it was a big, big-time moment in our sport. And I think those are the moments you will remember,” Federer said. “Now, at the end, if somebody else would pass you, I mean, I guess it’s OK, because that’s what sports is all about. It’s a lot about numbers. It’s a lot about records. But I had my moment and I always said everything that comes after 15 was, anyway, a bonus. And especially after the knee injury (in 2016), everything that came after that was a bonus. I would have taken one more Slam, and I was able to get three more — and three amazing ones.”

Nadal, currently No. 1 in the ATP rankings, and Djokovic, who is No. 2 ahead of Federer, each took home two major trophies last season.

Djokovic won the Australian Open (beating Nadal in the final) and Wimbledon (beating Federer in the final after saving two championship points).

Nadal won at Roland Garros (beating Federer in the semifinals) and the U.S. Open (facing neither of the other two).

“I always say the same: I would love to be the one who wins more,” Nadal said, “but I am not thinking (about it) and I’m not going to practice every day … for it.”

After his seventh championship in Australia a year ago, Djokovic said: “I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have – mental, physical, emotional – so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.”

Federer’s most recent Grand Slam triumph arrived at Melbourne Park in 2018.

He is 38, an age at which no one has won a Slam title in the professional era; he doesn’t feel compelled to quit anytime soon. Still, time is certainly on the side of Nadal, 33, and Djokovic, 32.

“I honestly think it’s going to be quite exciting to see how much longer can they go. How much more can they win? They might have some more incredible years ahead of them. That’s my assumption,” Federer said. “It’s a bit of a golden time for tennis right now, no doubt.”

Also of particular interest, of course, is when a new face will emerge from the crop of 20-somethings who have been rising in the rankings. There hasn’t been a first-time male champ at a major since 2014.

Ask Federer to name names, and he offers several, calling them “that whole group of guys.”

Among them, he said: Felix Auger-Aliassime. Denis Shapovalov. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who upset Federer at the Australian Open last year. Alexander Zverev. Daniil Medvedev. Karen Khachanov.

“It’s an elite group of 10 now, which is nice. It’s not just maybe one or two that we thought were pretty good,” Federer said. “So I think it’s changed a little bit in the last, sort of, 18 months. It’s just really, really hard to predict who’s going to win.”

Here’s something Federer is certain of, though: One day, someone will come along and accumulate majors the way no one ever had until he, Nadal and Djokovic rewrote the record book.

“It’s going to happen, inevitably,” Federer said, shaking his head. “And it’s almost not going to be that hard, maybe, anymore, later on, for some reason, I just feel like, because the players will have seen what we did. And they didn’t see just one guy doing it, once every 30 years. They saw like three guys doing it, in the shortest period of time, right after ‘Pistol’ (Sampras). So I just think players are going to believe more. I think maybe the surfaces in some ways also allow you, maybe, if you’re on a hot streak, just to run through more years of domination, like what Novak, Rafa and me, we’ve all done.”

Impossible to know who, though. Or when.

After all, Federer never saw the magnitude of his own success – or those of his rivals – coming.

“I didn’t predict I was going to have this many majors. I was hoping to maybe have one, to be quite honest, at the very beginning of my career. When I played Novak, I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s good. He might win a major.’ You know? ‘Rafa, he’s probably going to win the French. Maybe once. Or a few times.’ But you don’t go 12 times there. Or, you know, streaks of not having lost matches on hard or clay for, I don’t know, nine months. It’s just stuff that eventually builds,” he said. “So, hard to tell, but there’s a … group of guys that I see now probably winning at least, like, four or five majors — which then can lead to 15 or more, of course.”

Roger Federer bids farewell in last match before retirement

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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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 was bidding farewell Friday night with one last contest before he heads into retirement at age 41 after an illustrious career that included 20 Grand Slam titles and role as a statesman for tennis. He was scheduled to play a doubles match alongside his rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.

“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.”

When the players from both squads were introduced before the initial singles matchup of the three-day team event at the O2 Arena, Federer was the last to emerge from a tunnel leading out to the black court, wearing his team’s blue zip-up jacket and black pants. Fans who were loud enough for Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and others really let Federer hear their support and gratitude, rising for a lengthy standing ovation while lifting their phone cameras to capture the moment.

When there were breaks in the action during the matches before his, Federer wandered over to the stands and signed autograph after autograph – on programs, tennis balls, whatever was thrust his way by spectators.

“The crowd was electric,” Sock said after losing the opening singles match Friday afternoon to two-time 2022 Grand Slam runner-up Casper Ruud 6-4, 5-7, 10-7. “I can only imagine what it’s going to be like for the rest of the weekend. And obviously tonight with … two of the `GOATs’ playing together.”

In the second match – which was briefly interrupted when an environmental protester made it on to the court and lit his arm on fire before being carried away by security guards – Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 to put Team Europe ahead 2-0.

Those lucky enough to have tickets came from all over, no distance too far to travel, no expense too great.

“I have such mixed feelings about this,” said Indrani Maitra, a 49-year-old from India. “I’m really glad I’m being able to catch his last match. But I’m really sad this is his last match.”

She came with her daughter, Anushka Verma, a 19-year-old student at University of California, Berkeley, for what they said was their first time to watch tennis live. Both wore blue hats for the occasion, Maitra’s with Federer’s “RF” insignia, Verma’s with Nadal’s bull horns logo.

There were lines hundreds of people deep at the “Game, Set, Merch” shops in and outside the venue. Jacob Benaion, a 61-year-old from Brazil, said he waited for more than an hour with his son, 32-year-old Moyses.

“I love tennis. My first favorite was Ivan Lendl. After that, Pete Sampras. And after that, Roger Federer. And Roger Federer is the best one of all,” Benaion said. “He is a legend and he helped tennis grow around the world. He is an ambassador of tennis.”

This goodbye follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the U.S. Open three weeks ago after a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she dominated, and transcended, for decades.

One key difference: Each time Williams took the court in New York, the looming question was how long her stay would endure – a “win or this is it” prospect. Friday IS it for Federer, no matter the result.

The Laver Cup, which is in its fifth edition, was founded by Federer’s management company and uses a format quite different from a standard tournament. So a victory for him and Nadal would not mean advancing to another round.

Instead, Federer made clear that his surgically repaired right knee – the last of three operations came shortly after a loss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July 2021, which will go down as his final official singles match – is in no shape to allow him to continue, and he will not compete beyond Friday.

“It will be awesome to see Roger back on court. No one really knows what to expect physically from him, where he’s at, but … we’ll enjoy every minute of it,” Sock said. “Give him a big hug at the end, win or lose.”

Just before Ruud vs. Sock began, Federer rose from a black couch just off the sideline and walked over to offer Ruud a pat on the shoulder.

After his victory, Ruud said about Federer: “All the players will miss him.”

“Roger is a unicorn in our sport,” Tsitsipas said this week. “He has all my respect, all my appreciation for what he has offered to tennis today. It’s something that, for sure, is not going to be forgotten for thousands of years. He has that charisma and purity and aura about him that made him kind of invincible when he was on the court.”

Tiafoe’s take on Federer was similar: “I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger, the way he played, and the grace he did it with, and who he is as an individual.”

There have been similar sentiments expressed by many inside the sport and out in the time since Federer made public on Sept. 15 his plan to finish playing at the Laver Cup.

The last hurrah comes after a total of 103 tour-level titles on Federer’s substantial resume and 1,251 wins in singles matches, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968. Federer’s records include being the oldest No. 1 in ATP rankings history – he returned to the top spot at 36 in 2018 – and most consecutive weeks there (his total weeks mark was eclipsed by Djokovic).

At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005-07. Trace it out to 2010 and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.

More than the numbers, folks will remember that powerful forehand, one-handed backhand and flawless footwork, a spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, a willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part he’s proudest of – unusual longevity. Then, too, there is his persona away from the court.

All of which is part of why the truth Friday was that the eventual winner of Federer-Nadal vs. Tiafoe-Sock, the score, the statistics – none of that would matter, was all so entirely beside the point. The day was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, the farewells: Federer’s to tennis, to the fans, to his colleagues. And, naturally, each of those entities’ farewells to Federer.

Federer’s final match comes in doubles alongside rival Nadal

Laver Cup 2022 - Previews
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LONDON – It was quite a collection of tennis luminaries sharing the black indoor hard court for a Laver Cup doubles practice session Thursday, 66 Grand Slam titles among them, a group collectively nicknamed the Big Four: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on one side of the net; Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray on the other.

This team event founded by his management company marks the end of Federer’s career, and his last match will come Friday night alongside longtime rival Nadal for Team Europe against the Team World doubles pairing of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.

“I’m not sure if I can handle it all. But I’ll try,” the 41-year-old Federer said about his sure-to-be-emotional on-court farewell after 20 major championships, a total of 103 tournament titles and hundreds of weeks at No. 1 across nearly a quarter of a century as a professional tennis player.

“Sitting here,” Federer said Thursday at a team news conference, with Nadal, who is 36, to his left, and Djokovic and Murray, both 35, a couple of seats down to his right, “it feels good that I go first from the guys. It feels right.”

Federer is ending his playing days following a series of operations on his right knee. He hasn’t competed since a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to Hubert Hurkacz in July 2021.

In February of this year, when word emerged that Federer would be in London this week, he said Nadal messaged him suggesting they play doubles together again. They teamed up to win a doubles match during the first Laver Cup in 2017.

“I saw him playing on TV before I arrived on tour. I saw him having success on TV, and then (we were) able to create an amazing rivalry together. And on the other hand, something that probably we are very proud of is having a friendly rivalry,” Nadal said Thursday. “Tomorrow is going to be a special thing. Difficult. Going to be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. But for me, too. At the end, one of the most important players – if not the most important player – in my tennis career is leaving.”

They played each other in singles 40 times (Nadal won 26), including 14 Grand Slam matchups (Nadal won 10). Nadal came out on top in their classic 2008 Wimbledon final, considered by some the greatest match in history; Federer won their last showdown, in the 2019 semifinals at the All England Club.

“To be part of this historic moment,” Nadal said about Friday, “is going to be something amazing, unforgettable.”

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old American who beat Nadal en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open this month, deadpanned: “Yeah, I’m just excited to play two up-and-comers tomorrow.”

Added Tiafoe: “It’s going to be iconic to be a part of that. Both guys are absolute legends. And obviously, (it’s) Roger’s last dance.”

The full lineup for Day 1 of the three-day Laver Cup was announced Thursday.

The singles matches will be Sock against two-time 2022 Grand Slam finalist Casper Ruud of Team Europe, Diego Schwartzman of Team World against 2021 French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas of Team Europe, and Alex de Minaur of Team World against three-time major champion Murray, before the Federer-Nadal doubles match closes the schedule.

Everyone knows what the main event will be: Federer’s goodbye.

“For me,” Murray said, “it feels right seeing him and Rafa on the same side of the net together.”