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‘Federer: Twelve Final Days’ Review

New documentary tracks the final moments of 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer’s career as a professional tennis player.

Roger Federer reading his retirement announcement. A man looking down, in a room which is brightly lit.
Roger Federer reads his retirement announcement | Credit: Lafcadia Productions

The decorated career of Roger Federer reached its conclusion almost two years ago. Now, we are privy to how his final days as a professional tennis player panned out. Not originally intended for public viewing, Twelve Final Days includes interviews, archival footage, and the lead-up to the public announcement of Federer’s retirement.

From Then to Now

Roger Federer tying his headband. A man against a black background, dimly lit. He ties a white bandana around his head.
Federer prepares ahead of his final match | Credit: Lafcadia Productions

If the goal was to give the viewer a sense of how troubling it must be to do something so central to your life for the final time, Twelve Final Days passes with flying colours. We see Federer’s ‘lasts’ as a professional, down to the minutiae of tying his headband and his shoelaces. His last time (“officially,” as he says) in the gym. His last press conference. Parallel shots between the final match and matches of Federer’s youth are shown in succession. Federer as he heads to court. Waiting in various atriums and tunnels. Warming up in the gym. From the earliest video footage of Federer practicing his groundstrokes to the same ones executed in his final matches. His career is not dwelt upon or discussed in much depth, but its breadth is adequately captured.

The callbacks to the duration of his career through archival footage are what give this documentary its emotional depth. Sure, it is marketed as being about his final days, but one might expect an account of his achievements. Without the anchor of any specific significance (the first male player to achieve 20 Grand Slam titles, having the second-most titles in the Open Era, five consecutive titles in two different Slam tournaments, I could definitely go on) his greatness is merely implied; or, more probably, assumed knowledge.

Federer’s praises are sung for much of the first half, his career eulogized by predecessors, contemporaries, and successors alike. There are some anecdotes from the early days of his career. Federer recounts a story from his 2001 Wimbledon win over Pete Sampras to make his first quarter-finals at the tournament. The man Federer refers to as “the King”, Björn Borg, called Federer to thank him for protecting his record of five consecutive Wimbledon victories from potential usurpation by Sampras. It isn’t mentioned in the voice-over, but Federer would be the one to match Borg’s record just six years later.

Fault?

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sat beside each other. Two men, emotional, sat beside eac other. Dressed in blue. One is wiping his eyes.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the 2022 Laver Cup | Credit: Lafcadia Productions

The documentary has not gone uncriticised. The Federer brand is notably well-curated and polished, inoffensive to the end of appealing to the widest audience. Some feel this clinical approach was not put on hold when making the documentary.

Throughout, there is a sense that we are waiting for something more. It could just be the subtitles counting down the days until the final match. Or maybe it is the apprehension coming off of Federer that doesn’t ease up until the very end. We consider rivals of Federer’s past: a neat segment on the topic of Djokovic’s progress from a player Federer “wasn’t convinced by” when they first played each other in Monte Carlo in 2006 to the complete player he is today, wrapped up with a nod to Andy Murray. We meet Federer’s predecessors: Rod Laver, John McEnroe, and Björn Borg. The upcoming generation of tennis players competes with the old guard at the Laver Cup. Federer’s wife, parents, children, and team are a consistent presence. It feels as though the full cast of Federer’s tennis life is thoroughly cycled through. What’s missing?

And then Rafael Nadal shows up. He is delivered to the arena in a Laver Cup-branded car, concealed behind tinted windows and a considerable delay opening the car door; but, for some reason, you know it’s him. It’s about time.

Undoubtedly, it was Nadal’s absence that was being felt. Structuring the documentary in this way makes it clear that the most important part of Federer’s life as a tennis player was Nadal. What you might not gain about Federer’s personal life, there is certainly candour in the way their rivalry is discussed. Although the focus is the end of Federer’s career, the heart of the documentary is the on- and off-court relationship between Nadal and Federer.

While the Federer camp sheds a tear after his retirement announcement goes live, the man himself shows restraint (at least for the cameras). Nadal’s appearance certainly brings a tone shift along with it. There is more active reminiscing from Federer. Besides Federer, Nadal is the only other player whose career and characteristics are dwelt upon. Federer gets real about the struggle of maintaining the coveted world No. 1 spot when faced with the fresh challenge of Nadal. He considers the mental side of coping with being dethroned. He reflects on Nadal’s development from someone “shy” to becoming a “strong personality.” The tensions of the rivalry are ultimately reconciled with the fact that they pushed each other to become better players.

And then the crying. This is a bit of a hard watch – was a bit of a hard watch, if you watched the 2022 Laver Cup as it happened. Opinions on this were well-accounted for at the time. It is unheard of for an athlete’s biggest rival to cry as openly as Nadal did at Federer’s farewell. For the surround of the mostly emotionless interviews with Federer and those closest to him, the epicentre of the devastation is Federer realising that this is the end of a rather large part of his life, and Nadal facing that fact right alongside him.

So, maybe there is something to the criticism. Maybe we don’t see as much of the ‘real Federer’ as we would expect from a documentary. I would suggest that maybe we do – it’s just not explicit. It is telling that Federer admits he made it through the interviews and press conferences without shedding a tear, but could not hold it together at the end of his final match. Despite the sort of steely, depthless pragmatism with which Federer openly faces his struggles, injuries, and a retirement which wasn’t entirely his choice, it is more than clear what matters to him and what made him tick for all those years. Show, don’t tell, as they say.

Federer: Beyond Tennis

Roger Federer gives a commencement speech at Dartmouth. A man in a graduation gown, backgrounded by leaves.
Federer delivering the Commencement address at Dartmouth College | Credit: Dartmouth

A theme of the documentary is the struggle of an athlete in their professional afterlife. A phrase casually dropped as we approach the final hours is “sports people die twice.” It is made clear throughout that this is not to be the case with our subject.

Outside of tennis, Federer has been involved in pursuits from investments in clothing lines to co-chairing the Met Gala. He is delivering Commencement addresses at Ivy League colleges. He hasn’t been hanging around the tennis tours much, but he made the obligatory rounds at Wimbledon in 2023, where he is regarded as nothing short of a deity. In this way, he fulfils a promise made to himself: that he wouldn’t, as Borg did, stay away from the world of tennis for 25 years.

It is perhaps too surface to be a true tear-jerker, but what Twelve Final Days does well is show how careers such as Federer’s become the centre of one’s life. When you can pin emotional weight to tying your shoelaces, you know there is some difficult disengaging ahead of you. You feel not only for what Federer is losing but also for the gap left for his devoted team. Perhaps it is best summed up by Mirka Federer’s tearful parting words: “I will miss seeing him play.”

Federer: Twelve Final Days is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Written By

UK-based literature student. Primarily interested in literature, film, and creative writing. Occasionally insists that tennis falls under one or more of these categories.

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