O2 ARENA — When one of the most popular athletes of all time, winner of the ATP’s Fans’ Favourite award for 19 straight years no less, decides to call time on his career, where does all that support go? Well, we’re about to find out – or perhaps not.
“I’ll tell you in a few years. I’m not sure right now. I’m probably not going to watch tennis for a long time,” Vishnu Thirumurugan, a Roger Federer fanatic who travelled all the way from Australia to witness the Swiss’s final match on Friday night, tells i.
By all accounts, Vishnu is a fervent Federer fan, with his Twitter bio reading, in all caps: “Life will never be the same. Love you forever and always Roger Federer.”
He paid £1,800 in flights to be here. From Sydney to London, via Tokyo. He spent a further £1,000 on accommodation nearby in Southwark, and forked out another £1,085 – he estimates – on tickets for every Laver Cup session going at the O2 this weekend.
He has watched his hero roughly 150 times in person, and though Federer was only fit to play one doubles match over the course of this three-day event, for Vishnu, like many, having the opportunity to watch the 41-year-old bow out besides great rival Rafael Nadal is worth every penny.
“Roger is a big part of my life,” Vishnu adds. “I might miss alarms for work but I won’t when he’s playing in the middle of the night. I guess I’ll start getting some good sleep now, but I don’t think it’s hit me, the full extent of the whole retirement.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a big tennis fan but rather a big Roger fan. He’s helped me a lot. I had a really tough childhood in terms of my health, and just watching Roger play, it was always something that I look forward to, and something that helped me in my worst times in my life.”
Vishnu is joined by friends Clara and Erica at the O2, and they joke that Vishnu is famous among the army that is Federer’s fans across social media. Clara has travelled over from France, Erica from Canada, and they also need time to process the news.
“I think I’ll keep watching tennis,” adds Clara, “but there will never be anyone else that will make me want to wake up in the middle of the night and watch. That is only justifiable by the joy he brings us.
“There’ll be other great champions and probably other players I’ll like, but I know that for me there will never be another Federer. I was 12 when I got into tennis, and the way I felt then I still feel now.”
‘Roger means love – being a fan made me feel less lonely’
Sofia, another member of the Federer fan club, recalls her fond memories of the Swiss, and explains why her energy isn’t going anywhere else.
“The first time I saw Roger was while supporting Marat Safin in 2005,” she tells i. “I saw a guy that lost the match but won my heart – I was mesmerised by his game yes, but there was something else about him.
“I didn’t know at the time what it was and what a big part he was going to play in my life. Roger travelled with me as I left my country and emigrated alone to a new one. Being his fan made me feel less lonely when I was alone, gave me a community and gave me a chance to be myself – his authenticity on and off the court is why he is my idol. I learnt French because of him and met my [French] husband while practicing my French skills.
“Roger means love, authenticity and elegance. He means family, connection and community. My energy does not go to anyone else really. Whether on court or off court Roger will still be my Roger, I’ll just get to see him less.
“I’ll follow tennis but will not schedule my meetings around tennis matches or cancel gatherings just to catch someone play.
“He leaves behind an army of fans. We are there for Roger and will always be, we grew up with him, we owe him so much love and this does not retire! It is just sad that we will get to show our love less frequently, only when he chooses to play for us again. Roger means love and love never disappears!”
Beyond events like the Laver Cup or Davis Cup, tennis is not like football, or other team sports for that matter. Footballers come and go, they move clubs, sometimes return, and always eventually retire, but supporters at least have that constant – in most cases – in knowing their team will outlast any one player.
The same cannot be said for tennis, and now the seemingly unthinkable has happened, with two greats of the game retiring within the space of a month.
First Serena Williams, now Federer, and where exactly all this energy goes remains to be seen. Federer alone has built up a fanbase so strong their adoration could power a small country – if there was such a way to convert love into kinetic energy, it would be helpful right about now – but though the Swiss has now ended his 24-year career, his supporters are clearly not ready to transfer their allegiance elsewhere.
“For me Roger is tennis,” says Erica. “I like tennis but I like Roger more than the sport, and when I watch somebody else I don’t get that nervous feeling. When he plays, I’m glued to my seat, I’m not moving for anything.”
So, as the “What next for Federer?” questions arise from his retirement – with commentary and exhibitions on the cards – the same now applies to his fans, who will be waking up on Saturday to the reality that their idol is now, technically, a former tennis player.
They will have their memories, those 20 grand slams, the 103 ATP titles, the 310 weeks at No 1, and an online community too that will not go away, but when it comes to tennis itself, the sport as they know it will never be the same again.