90.1 FM San Luis Obispo | 91.7 FM Paso Robles | 91.1 FM Cayucos | 95.1 FM Lompoc | 90.9 FM Avila
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A new documentary tracks tennis legend Roger Federer's last days on the court

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Roger Federer won his first major title at the All England Tennis Club in 2003.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Roger Federer, Wimbledon champion. You better get used to that.


ROGER FEDERER: Thank you. No, it's an absolute dream for me.

MARTÍNEZ: He would go on to win title after title, 20 total Grand Slam championships. When he was 41, he announced his retirement on Instagram. Now the tennis great is sharing more about his final days in a new Amazon documentary called "Federer: Twelve Final Days." It's co-directed by Joe Sabia, who convinced the Swiss athlete to turn what was supposed to be a short film marking the end of his career for his own archives into a longer format for a wider audience.

JOE SABIA: A lot of it was just observing Roger being Roger, going through this experience, this moment by moment. So my job was truly to be invisible.

MARTÍNEZ: There are touching moments with his family. There are tearful moments with his tennis rivals. We hear Federer talk through his emotions in real time. As he gets ready to play professionally for the last time, surrounded by hundreds of fans, he equates the moment to how he felt playing any big match.


FEDERER: These are the nerves I'm going to miss. But also, I'm happy they're gone once I'm officially retired, yeah. Because those nerves and those knots in the tummy, it's draining after a while.

MARTÍNEZ: Asif Kapadia co-directed "Federer: Twelve Final Days."

ASIF KAPADIA: It's just a love story, you know? It's a love story between him and tennis, him and his fans, between Roger and his wife - and his rivals. This kind of really unusual relationship between him and his greatest rivals, who are all there for this moment and who're all sharing in something and knowing it's all going to end at some point. That's what I find really kind of moving and powerful about it.

MARTÍNEZ: And they all like him, right? I mean, it seems like they love him. I mean, we're talking about rivals that he's been playing tennis up against for decades and they all seem to genuinely like the guy.

KAPADIA: Yeah, I don't think you'd get this in any other sport. You know, I've seen a lot of sports films. I love sport, and I don't think you get that energy and that relationship in particularly solo sports. And so you spend all of these years battling one another and trying to psych each other out, and then something about him - they're all there. They all turn up, and it feels really genuine. It feels real, you know?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. You know, today, athletes have a lot of control over their stories. They break news about themselves on their socials. And also, this moment really struck me from the film. Let's listen to this.


FEDERER: Even though I did feel I was solid, you know, through the interviews and everything - even through the game, I was super relaxed. Then - I don't know - at the end it was just, you know, (scoffing). It's like, OK, I mean, this is it. And, you know, kind of what happens next? (Sobbing).


MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, so that moment, I mean, Asif, when you see Roger Federer, it seems like at that point, he realized that it is over - that this chapter that was such a big part of his life and his career and his identity is over. That he allows himself on camera to be filmed - he could have stayed calm, composed like he has been on the tennis court for decades. Instead, he decided to let it loose a little bit there. I mean, that had to be kind of a gold moment, I think, for this film.

KAPADIA: Even that clip kind of makes me start crying (laughter). It's real, you know, what he's feeling. He's trying to keep it all together, and then he knows it's over. What do I do? You know, this is Roger Federer talking. And he didn't say, oh, don't use that, don't show that. He's obviously very comfortable in himself. He's very secure as a person, in his relationships. And his wife, I think, plays a huge part in that and his team around him. And he's willing to kind of be open about his emotions.

It's the opposite of, like, toxic masculinity, you know, in this sport. It's, like, someone who's really open and willing to show his emotional side and to say out loud, what do I do now? He's achieved everything. He's, like, considered one of the greatest athletes, one of the greatest tennis players, and he doesn't know what he's going to do with himself and he's in his early 40s. And he didn't have a problem with showing that to Joe and the camera, but then also let us put it in the movie.

MARTÍNEZ: That was after the Laver Cup, right? That was his last match at the Laver Cup?

SABIA: That was the final day. In the final day, there was no obligations for him to meet anyone or see anyone. And that was one hour before he got on a plane and went back to Switzerland. So he walked in the room and I basically begged him - I said, Roger, this has been great. I know that the scope is eight to 12 minutes but I really want a debrief interview with you, because I knew in my head that if this was a feature-length film, this would be the connective tissue that binds it all.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you both hope that viewers understand about Federer's career that wasn't already publicly known by his fans? Asif, let's start with you on that.

KAPADIA: I think this film, for me, isn't like - it's not a tennis movie. It's not for people who just love tennis. It's not for people who just love Roger Federer. It's an interesting kind of story and a biography of a really interesting man at a particular point in their life. And so that's what I think - this all could really spread out to people. And we all at some point, whatever we do, you think, OK, when am I getting to the end of a certain cycle of life? I'm interested in different stages of humanity in the way of careers and lives. And we've got an amazing man here in his 40s. Now, I'm lucky. I hope to carry on making films until my 70s and 80, you know, if I can, if I still enjoy it. But when you're an athlete, there's a point where you just can't do it anymore physically. And I find that all of us can somehow deal with that. You know, all of us can somehow relate to that.

MARTÍNEZ: Joe, what about you? I mean, you were right there with Roger.

SABIA: Yeah, I mean, I had thought a lot about the fact that this man has basically marked a large portion of his identity around one activity that he's become globally known for. And, you know, he calls this - Roger very much calls it a death. And every time there's a screening, he says that it's like watching the funeral over and over again. I think the metaphor that I would use is - what I was witnessing in that moment that the world can now witness is this shedding of an identity, this metamorphosis into something else that we don't yet know what it is. But we know it's happening while it's happening.

And I think, for me, as I was going through the experience, I kind of questioned, what is my identity? What do I pour my love and my passion for? What do the closest people in my life know me as? And what would happen if that went away tomorrow? Who am I? And I think this is a question that a lot of audiences will ask as they watch this. And I really hope it inspires people to think about that.

MARTÍNEZ: Asif Kapadia and Joe Sabia co-directed "Federer: Twelve Final Days." Thank you, you two.

KAPADIA: Thanks. Great to be here.

SABIA: Thanks so much for having us.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.