Roger Federer: ‘Retirement is as if you were at a funeral of your own life, a big slow-motion blur’

The legendary Swiss tennis player talks exclusively to EL PAÍS about the final stretch of his career, portrayed in a Prime Video documentary that premiered on June 20

Roger Federer poses for a portrait in Melbourne.
Roger Federer poses for a portrait in Melbourne.ATP Tour via Getty Images
Alejandro Ciriza

The sight of Roger Federer wrapped in a white polo shirt always arouses dreamlike sensations. However, the winner of 20 majors, the legend, a marvelous work of art turned athlete, stopped competing two years ago to undertake another very different mission: to be a good father, a good husband and, simply, to enjoy his new life. Gone are the adrenaline and the adulation, the 24 years in the tennis elite and the emotions that came with it. The day after is never easy, nor is the final stretch. The Swiss’ future began to be painted in a different light when he went to bathe his twins and his right knee cracked. He recovered, returned, and triumphed again, but a second operation definitively closed the chapter. After a long attempt to stage another comeback, the genius decided to call it a day. Not without a final party. And an elegant one, of course. In a video call, the record eight-times Wimbledon winner recounts in a national exclusive for EL PAÍS the final days of his career, as portrayed in the documentary Federer: Twelve Final Days, directed by the Oscar-winning Asif Kapadia and Joe Sabia and released on June 20 on Prime Video.

Question. Your friend Severin Luthi says that, with retirement, athletes die twice. Do you agree?

Answer. Look, it’s an incredible feeling, as if you were at a kind of funeral of your own life. It’s a very strange feeling, to be honest. You’re completely alert and you experience a big slow-motion blur of everything that’s going on. So watching the documentary is like therapy; in fact, it’s very hard for me to watch it because I know what I felt then, and you go through it again. So what Severin says may sound intense, but athletes who haven’t retired yet don’t know what it really means. It’s like an operation: you only know what it feels like once you’ve been through it. I would never have thought that the end would be so full of experiences.

Q. Did you imagine it differently?

A. I thought, you know, maybe there would come that moment with the microphone, where you’re the center of attention. I thought about something like that, that’s what I envisioned, but it was so much more. That’s why I convinced myself, my team and everybody else that maybe it was worth showing this stuff, because it was so special, so unique, and so painful, and yet so good, that the fans might be interested in it. Retirement is a very personal thing for everyone; I mean, it marks an important moment in time, in everyone’s career or life, whether in sport or not, so I hope people like to see the process of how I experienced those final days.

Crying after losing matches is a classic, we all know that from the juniors; but doing it after winning was wild. But, in perspective, I feel very happy that I didn’t hold back”

Q. How hard is it for a legend of your standing to accept that the time has come, that it’s over?

A. It’s really a combination of feelings. You’re sad, because you know it’s coming and it’s inevitable, but at the end of the day we all know it’s going to end at one time or another, so you try to make it as pleasant as possible and hope that it’s beautiful, not just a process of suffering. I tried to convince myself that it should be a happy moment in my career, not something sad, and I think the film reflects that really well. I wanted it to be something more than, ‘okay, goodbye everybody.’

Q. You fought very hard to be able to say goodbye on the court, didn’t you?

A. Throughout all these years I’ve experienced overwhelming emotions and I’ve shown how much I care about the sport, the kind of love I have for my family and the fans, and I wanted to show gratitude. I’ve been very fortunate and finally that last moment came, which I had to work so hard for. It’s crazy. I worked for I don’t know how long, a year or more, to be able to play that last doubles match [with Rafael Nadal, at the O2 in London]. It was crazy. So when you take all this into account, the outcome was beautiful and I enjoyed a lot of moments.

Federer during rehabilitation, in a scene from the documentary.
Federer during rehabilitation, in a scene from the documentary.Courtesy of Prime

Q. In 2016 you tore your meniscus and underwent surgery; then, in 2021, you underwent a second arthroscopy. What was the second recovery process like?

A. The operation was necessary. And to be honest, it wasn’t that hard because I didn’t have to be fighting every day to stay motivated. I loved the process of going to the physio and rehab, having something to do every day and being able to see the improvements you are making; all that was enough to keep me motivated. Even when things weren’t getting better, or getting worse, sometimes you were like, ‘okay, let’s figure this out.’ And it was a good challenge for me. I always see the glass as half full and even a tough moment like this, it wasn’t a problem for me.

Q. When did you realize it wasn’t going to be possible to compete again?

A. The day after the operation you try to walk again and you take steps as if you were a baby again, but that is already an improvement. Of course, the road to being able to run, jump and play is still very long, but you think that, at the same time, that moment is getting closer and closer. The really difficult moment is at the end, when you realize that you have one last climb to the top, and you see that it’s not happening. Accepting all that was a little sad because, you know, I would have liked to have had one last chance to play, but at the same time I was relieved that I didn’t have to go through all those brutal emotions of pain again, of being 100% and having to play in front of the crowd. At the end of the day, you want to be at 100% so you can compete against the best, but I felt that wasn’t going to happen again. So I decided to stop and I’m actually very happy that I made the decision. I’m happy and I’m super content.

Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in London.
Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in London.Courtesy of Prime

Q. How was the final stretch, deciding the “here and now?” Did you suffer during it or did you enjoy it more?

A. I had to manage all the emotions. First, I recorded that message [broadcast through social networks] to thank everyone and announce it, and then it was time to tell my friends, which was a very, very hard step. From there, I thought I had arrived at a really good, happy, exciting place, and I was like, ‘here we go.’ I was able to get back to playing, back to training, back to remembering how the muscles react; back to the life of a tennis player, which I hadn’t felt for a year and a half because I was basically doing rehab every day. So you can imagine what it was like, really nice.

Q. Finally, there was the episode at the O2 in London.

A. Of course, there was a lot of attention towards the end of my career, so once I got there, I had to do a lot of interviews, although I feel like I handle them well because I’ve done so many already. It was a great 12 days, I enjoyed it from start to finish. That press conference was very, very emotional, so it was not easy to control myself. I felt the weight of that moment. It was not just another one. You’re one step away from retiring and your life never being the same again, but in the end it was very special, and I’m happy. I wanted to capture those last 12 days, not with the intention of making this documentary, but so that my children, my team, and the fans could see it, because I was always very reserved. But, when we reviewed it, we decided it was too beautiful to keep, so we decided to share it. And here we are.

My wife taught me what discipline is, because she is incredibly disciplined; I was more the player, the performer, so to speak, and I needed to be guided in that aspect”

Q. When did you really feel you were no longer a professional tennis player?

A. Do you remember when I was at Wimbledon for the 100th anniversary of Center Court? Well, I wasn’t sure if I should be there, because I was still active, but I wasn’t playing. In the end, I decided to go at the last minute. ‘Okay, let’s go to London; it’s the right thing to do.’ And when I went out there on the court, it was like, ‘oh, my God.’ The ovation was unbelievable. Then they asked me, I think it was [1976 Roland Garros champion and BBC presenter] Sue Barker, if I expected to come back next year to play, and I still totally believed. However, a couple of weeks went by and I realized what wasn’t happening, that I was constantly going up and down, and I knew I needed to see that there was improvement. Then I went on vacation, I think to Ibiza, and I realized it was over. ‘Okay, it’s okay’. And from there, to be honest, I didn’t talk about it too much. I was just enjoying my life without tennis, without training or rehab. And I asked myself: where and how do I retire? The U.S. Open, Basel, the Laver Cup, this year, next year... And from there I told my parents, my friends and the people closest to me; I asked them, please don’t tell anyone. Then, of course, the pressure began to build: ‘You have to say it! You have to say it!’ ‘How is Roger doing,’ my friends asked. But I couldn’t tell them. It was terrible. In the end, I decided to do it at the Laver and it turned out to be the perfect setting.

Federer and Nadal, in September 2022 at the O2 in London.
Federer and Nadal, in September 2022 at the O2 in London.Ella Ling

Q. Your wife, Mirka, has been a fundamental pillar of support for you, but to what extent? What would Roger Federer have been without her by his side?

A. We met at the Sydney Games, when I hadn’t won any titles yet, so she’s been with me almost every step of the way. She has helped me a lot in difficult moments and has played a very important role in keeping me motivated. She also taught me what discipline is, because she is incredibly disciplined; I was more the player, the performer, so to speak, and I needed to be guided in that aspect. Obviously, she also worked very hard in the second part of my career with the kids [they have four, two twin boys and two twin girls], making everything work as we traveled on the Tour; the logistics were crazy and she’s been incredible in that regard. She knows that, and that’s why I’m so glad she’s also in the film. There’s a very touching moment where she says how meaningful it’s been and how much she’s always loved watching me play; that’s one of the most touching moments, because you see everything she’s been through with me.

I have the photo with Rafa at home, framed, and when I walk past it, it always catches my eye, because it reflects our camaraderie, our friendship, and also the rivalry, all in one image”

Q. You use the term “emotional” a lot. You are a man with a great sense of humor, who laughs a lot and cries a lot, too. Do you consider yourself to be very emotional?

A. Definitely, yes, and to be honest, I didn’t know I was like that. I remember the match against Sampras in 2001 [when he was 19, in the fourth round at Wimbledon] and the Davis Cup that same year, when I won my three rubbers against the Americans; I cried a lot then and again now, so it’s like, what’s going on? Crying after losing matches is a classic, we all know that from the juniors; but doing it after winning was wild. After my first win, I couldn’t even talk, because of everything it meant to me... But, in perspective, I feel very happy that I didn’t hold back, that I was able to share all those emotions with people and also with myself, because somehow, having experienced those moments so intensely, it’s like I could go back in time. If I didn’t fight, I would cry all the time, so I guess I’m a very emotional person. I also cried when my kids were born, because it changes the way you look at life and stuff.

Federer wraps the handle of his racquet before taking to the court.
Federer wraps the handle of his racquet before taking to the court.Courtesy of Prime

Q. The photo in which you and Nadal are crying together, holding hands, had a big impact worldwide. What meaning does it hold for you?

A. I don’t know, maybe I should ask Rafa, but it’s probably more important for me than for him. I have it at home, framed, in a space where I have some photos from my career; I don’t want photos everywhere, so I have them in a specific area. And when I walk past it, it always catches my eye, because it reflects our camaraderie, our friendship, and also the rivalry, all in one image. Ellie Goulding was singing and it’s a moment when we’re both able to reflect on everything we’d just experienced, remembering our careers and how lucky we’ve been to be tennis players, to have been able to turn our hobby into a dream profession. That’s what that photo means to me. It was a wonderful, brief moment; holding his hand for a second and basically showing my appreciation through that touch.

Q. Nadal thought he would be the first to go, because of all the injuries he has suffered. Did you have the same feeling?

A. Yes, I mean, I was worried that he might quit before me. There were signs that made us feel that Rafa wasn’t well and that he wasn’t going to last as long as he has. I didn’t think I could play past 37 or 38, and the same for him, but then you find a place again where you start to feel better. That’s why there’s a moment in the film where I say I’m happy I left first, so that they also have a phase in their careers where I’m not there, because I had that moment before Rafa, Novak [Djokovic] and Andy [Murray] came along. So I’m happy that they’re still playing and fighting with their problems and their physical issues. But yes, I was worried that Rafa might go and, in fact, I thought he might go after beating Medvedev [in the 2022 Australian Open final]; I thought maybe he would do it there or at Roland Garros [that same year]. I thought maybe he would do it like this: Boom! [he claps his hands]. I would have been incredibly happy for him, but at the same time it would have been a shock for me; just like, probably, you could see how much my retirement meant to him. I definitely think at our level of competition there is a unique connection and we know how the other person might be feeling, how much it means to lose the opponent.

I remember in the beginning I had to fight over my image because people said I was boring. I felt pretty misunderstood at first”

Q. He said: “When Roger goes, a part of my life goes too.” And he mentioned “the circle of life.”

A. Yes, it’s a super-meaningful phrase. He came to London because, of course, I called him. And once he landed, I think he realized that the situation was like a pressure cooker. It was a whole different level of emotional intensity, and I think the way he expressed it was beautiful. For me, too, it’s going to be very interesting to see how I’ll experience the retirement of any of them because, to be honest, after playing 40 or 50 games and talking about them so much, to see them finish has to be tough. It will be tough. The London thing was very special because normally you’re alone on the court, after the match, and it’s like, ‘okay, thank you; great job and that’s it, next match.’ And in this case, being all together, it was like time stopped for a second. It was really nice.

Q. At one point in the documentary, you say Djokovic has been a bit misunderstood. Do you think people have the wrong idea about him?

A. It’s hard to say, because everybody thinks a certain way about everybody else. I remember in the beginning I had to fight over my image because people said I was boring. You’re exciting! You’re funny! You’re crazy! You know, they pigeonhole you... So you have to accept it and fight against it. I felt pretty misunderstood at first too. So while everybody loved the rivalry between me and Rafa, all of a sudden Novak burst onto the scene alone, from that point of view, as the third one, and... I think it’s amazing how he’s been able to develop as a player and also as a person. I think, also, what really connects all of us, including Andy, is the fact that we are parents; beyond all the matches we have played and the rivalry, in that sense we have a lot in common and to talk about. He has two children, Andy has four and Rafa was close to having his first at the time [his son would be born a month later]... It was beautiful to be able to experience all that as a family.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS