(CNN) — After more than 1,500 matches, 103 singles titles and 20 grand slams, it is time for Roger Federer’s last dance.
The tennis great will take to the court for the final time to play with longtime friend and rival Rafael Nadal in a doubles match in the Laver Cup at London’s O2 Arena on Friday before hanging up his racket for good.
Following 24 years of excellence on the court, Federer will retire as one of the best to ever grace the sport, beloved by both his competitors and fans alike.
And ahead of his final competitive appearance, some of his toughest opponents over the years, who he’s beaten and — more infrequently — lost too, have been paying their respects.
“He’s got many sports fans to start following tennis,” three-time grand slam winner Andy Murray told CNN Sport. “He’s one of the most popular athletes across all sports because of the way he’s gone about his business on the court and off it, and yeah, he’s going to leave a big void and tennis will definitely miss him.”
Twenty-one-time grand slam winner Novak Djokovic echoed Murray’s sentiment, highlighting Federer’s wider impact. “As a tennis fan, not just his as his rival and tennis player, I’m grateful for everything he has done for our sport.
“He’s brought so much attention, positive attention for our sport on and off the court and brought a lot of other sports fans to watch tennis, so his contribution has been huge. His impact was huge on my own career, I became a better player because of the rivalry that I had with him over the years,” Djokovic told CNN Sport. “I’m sure that his iconic career will live for a very long time and will be remembered in the most positive way by many people.”
Although he’s not been able to feature as much as he would have liked in recent years, Federer’s presence has loomed large.
Having made his Tour debut in 1998, he became one of tennis’ most dominant players for over two decades, setting records in Tour wins and men’s grand slam singles titles.
In his long and storied career, Federer also spent a record 237 consecutive weeks at the top of the world rankings between 2004 and 2008. And before his last match, he said his longevity at the top is something he’s proud of.
“I was famous for being quite erratic at the beginning of my career. If you remember, I was famous for being not so consistent. To then become one of the most consistent players ever is quite a shock to me, as well,” Federer told the media on Thursday.
“That has been a great accomplishment for me, personally. People can judge if they think that’s the case too, but for me, that is something I have really enjoyed and that I have been able to stay at the top for so long and compete for any tournament I would enter and really go out there and say: ‘I hope I can win the tournament,’ for 15-plus years.
“I think looking back that has a special meaning to me because I always looked to the Michael Schumachers, Tiger Woods, all the other guys that stayed for so long at the top that I didn’t understand how they did it. Next thing you know, you’re part of that group, and it’s been a great feeling.”
While both Djokovic and Nadal have overtaken Federer’s record of men’s grand slam singles titles, the Swiss has remained a fan favorite due to his elegance and grace on and off the court.
The 41-year-old’s appearances have been limited in recent years due to injuries, having to undergo multiple knee surgeries the past few years, and his last outing a straight-sets defeat against Hubert Hurkacz in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year.
He said he had still planned to make a return to the sport next year as recently as two months ago before arriving at the decision to retire.
Federer said he had to obtain permission from Team Europe captain Björn Borg and tournament organizers to play in just the one doubles match at the Laver Cup — which sees teams from Europe and the rest of the world go head-to-head in nine singles and three doubles matches over the course of three days.
“Super special playing with Rafa [Nadal], feels really different, you know?” Federer said at the press conference on Thursday. “Also, just walking out on court and having the chance to play with the likes of Rafa or Novak [Djokovic] also in the past has been an amazing experience for me, so to be able to do that one more time, I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful.”
Nadal told the press conference on Thursday that he was “super excited” for Friday’s doubles match.
“After all the amazing things that we share together on and off court, [to] be part of this historic moment, going to be something yeah, amazing and unforgettable for me,” Nadal said, “and yeah, super excited, I hope I can have a good time, play at a decent level and hopefully together we can create a good moment and maybe win a match.”
Federer will play on Friday night in the doubles match before Italy’s Matteo Berrettini takes the Swiss’ spot on Team Europe for the rest of the competition. The Laver Cup was founded by Federer in 2017 and is named after Australian great Rod Laver.
And for the man himself, who will undoubtedly receive a hero’s send-off from the adoring crowd in London when he faces Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe with Nadal, Federer admitted that he would miss tennis.
“I love tennis, everything about it,” he said. “I will miss the competition, the fans cheering for or against me.
“They’ve usually been with me all the way, so it’s been great. I can always travel, so I will not miss that, but I love going on tour also at the second part of my career with my family — it’s been wonderful.”
He added: “You always want to play forever. I love being out on court, I love playing against the guys and I love traveling. I never really felt like it was that hard for me to do — of winning, learn from losing — it was all perfect.
“I love my career from every angle. That’s the bitter part [of retiring]. The sweet part was that I know everybody has to do it at one point. Everybody has to leave the game. It’s been a great, great journey. For that, I’m really grateful.”