His preparation this year was a bit different than usual: a two-day trip to rainy Finland, not exactly a tennis mecca, for one of the most extravagant, eccentric retirement parties in the sport’s history.
The man of honor was Jarkko Nieminen, age 34, older than Federer by two weeks and the most accomplished Finnish player ever. Nieminen, a recent father, played his last professional tournament in Stockholm last month. He and Federer have been friends since they first met as 14-year-olds. When Nieminen decided his time on the tour was up, he presented Federer with an idea.
“I thought, ‘OK, what’s the biggest way to finish?’” Nieminen said. “Of course to get the best player ever to come to my home, Finland.”
And so it was that Federer—father of four, winner of a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles and still No. 3 in the world—flew from Paris, where he played last week, to Finland for the first time during a chilly, wet month that the locals love to grumble about.
“People are like, ‘I’m sorry you have to be here in November,’ but it’s fine,” Federer said. “I’ll have to come back with the family.”
Federer has traveled extensively during his career but still loves it, especially when he visits a new place. Earlier this year, he played a tournament in Turkey. He has played exhibitions in South America, India and other parts of Asia. His chief motive, he said, is inspiration.
“To add that twist of fun and magic and freshness to everything besides the serious professional tour—I’ve played for 17 years—for me it seems like a great combination,” Federer said. “This is going to give me energy for the next few days and maybe the right inspiration I need for the World Tour Finals.”
No tennis player attracts as many fans from as many places as Federer (12,500 tickets to Nieminen’s retirement sold out in two hours). Nonetheless, Nieminen didn’t want to take any chances with his big night.
“Tennis is popular in Finland, but it’s not ice hockey,” Nieminen said. “I was a little bit afraid how it would go.” So Nieminen did what any good Finn would do: He invited two retired NHL stars—Finland’s Teemu Selänne and Sweden’s Peter Forsberg, tennis lovers both—to play doubles with the pros. There was a heavy metal band. And giant chocolate bars for the participants. T-Shirts for the event, dubbed “The Final Night,” were on sale for about $27 (profits from the evening benefited the Helsinki tennis academy Nieminen helped to start three years ago). Nieminen himself received a Jura coffee machine that looked like it weighed as much as a Finnish cruise-ship anchor.
“In Finland, we aren’t used to doing things this big,” Selänne said.
The fans, not surprisingly, were quite excited about a visit from Federer. When he was introduced as the greatest player who ever lived, the response in Hartwall Arena, Finland’s largest indoor stadium, was more roar than cheer.
“It’s crazy and it’s cool that it’s that way,” Federer said. “It makes you want to stay on tour, it makes you want to play, it makes you want to practice hard, it makes you want to put on a great show.”
Nieminen won two singles titles in his career and earned almost $8 million in prize money. He once reached No. 13 in the professional rankings, the highest spot in history for a Finn.
“My dream was to go to Wimbledon as a spectator once,” he said.
Nieminen watched in awe as his friend piled up Grand Slam titles. Nieminen lost all 15 of his matches against Federer, winning just one set. Federer, he said, is still like the kid he remembers.
“He’s still the same Roger, still has the same sense of humor, still very down to Earth,” Nieminen said.
Federer, who played in two major finals this year, said his friend’s retirement won’t make him think about his own. “I’m totally relaxed about it,” he said. “The love is still very much there and we’ll see where the journey takes me.”
In the first match of the evening, Nieminen and Selänne beat Federer and Forsberg in a set of doubles. Music followed, and then Federer and Nieminen returned for a fast-paced singles match played on a hard court set on top of wood that covered the arena’s ice. Satu Karhapää-Puhakka, who lives about 270 miles away in Joensuu, came with her husband and two children. They watched from the last row.
“These were the last places with four seats together,” she said. “This is the first time for me to see Federer play. It’s great.”
Federer won the match 7-6(4), 7-6(7), said his thanks and left Nieminen to stand in the spotlight. Nieminen looked up as a montage of his life played on the video screen. A young Nieminen hitting balls. Holding trophies. Wearing the uniform from his compulsory military service. Plucking a blade of grass from Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Nieminen wiped away a tear but the sadness passed quickly. Then it was time for a beloved Finnish pastime: headbanging.
Nieminen ran a lap of the court, swept his long, blond hair over his face, stepped onto the courtside stage and rocked out to the music of Apocalyptica, a heavy metal band featuring three classically trained cellists.
“That was amazing,” Federer said. “That’s the way to go out.”