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Djokovic says Federer set tone for excellence and led with poise

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GENEVA: Novak Djokovic paid a warm tribute to his rival Roger Federer on Friday after the Swiss tennis great’s announcement that he will retire after the Laver Cup this month.

Djokovic, reacting 24 hours after Federer said he was quitting, said they had “over a decade of incredible moments and battles to think back on”.

Tributes had also came in for the 41-year-old from Rafael Nadal while Serena Williams welcomed him to the “retirement club” after the American quit the game this month.

On Thursday, Federer admitted his battles with a knee problem had forced him to call time on a historic career that has yielded 20 Grand Slam titles and earned him a reputation as one of the most elegant players the game has ever seen.

His announcement was not a total surprise as he has been out of action since a quarter-final loss at Wimbledon in 2021, after which he underwent his third knee surgery in 18 months.

Federer’s knee problems restricted him to only three of the 11 Grand Slams played since the start of 2020 and he said his body had sent him “a message”.

Djokovic, who is six years younger than Federer and has won Grand Slams as the Swiss player’s powers have dimmed, had been conspicuous by his absence among the tributes on Thursday.

But a day later he said: “Roger, it’s hard to see this day and put into words all that we’ve shared in this sport together.” The duo played 17 matches at Grand Slam tournaments, including five finals, with Djokovic leading that head-to-head 11-6.

“Your career has set the tone for what it means to achieve excellence and lead with integrity and poise,” the Serb said on a social media.

“It’s an honour to know you on and off court, and for many more years to come.”

Tennis has now lost two of its greatest names in quick succession, after the 40-year-old Serena bowed out following a third-round defeat at the US Open this month.

“I wanted to find the perfect way to say this, as you so eloquently put this game to rest — perfectly done, just like your career,” Serena, who won 23 major titles, said on Instagram.

“I have always looked up to you and admired you. Our paths were always so similar, so much the same. You inspired countless millions and millions of people — including me — and we will never forget.”

Fans and pundits have wondered how the sport would cope with the prospect of losing their most marketable athletes.

With the exit of Serena and Federer in the space of three weeks, the answers could be at hand.

Nadal, arguably Federer’s greatest on-court rival, is a bit younger at 36 but a chronic foot issue forced the Spaniard to contemplate retirement in 2021 and again this year after he won a men’s record 22nd major title at the French Open, playing with numbing injections before each match in Paris.

A radio frequency treatment eased pain in his foot and allowed him to play Wimbledon, but the left-hander does not know whether the injury will flare up again.

Djokovic is undoubtedly the fittest and appears to be the best bet to keep the flag flying for tennis’ older generation.

Nadal’s message on social media for his “friend and rival” Federer echoed the mood of the tennis world.

“I wish this day would have never come. It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world,” Nadal said.

The Laver Cup promises to be an emotional final meeting of the “Big Four” who dominated men’s tennis over the past two decades.

Nadal, Djokovic and two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray will all play together in Team Europe.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2022

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