Asif Kapadia on Co-Directing Roger Federer Documentary ‘Twelve Final Days’: ‘It Felt Different to Anything I’ve Done Before’

Producer Joe Sabia first encountered tennis legend Roger Federer in 2019 for Vogue’s “73 Questions” series. Sabia enjoyed the interview and kept in touch with his team. Three years later, as Federer looked to retire from the sport as a professional player, Sabia was brought into his offices. Federer was planning to officially announce the news via his Instagram page with an audio message accompanying the post. His team pondered if Federer’s retirement should be filmed.

But Sabia responded, “Yes,” believing “it’d be a mistake not to.’”

More from Variety

As conversations went back and forth, the idea was that the video would be stripped back, private, under the radar, and like Federer himself, effortless. So, Sabia used two cameras, and the idea was to shoot an 8 to 12-minute film. “If Roger doesn’t want anyone to see it, I’m completely fine doing this, knowing that it’s going to be just for friends and family,” Sabia said.

The next day, he rushed to the B&H Photo store and bought $15,000 worth of camera equipment and hopped on a plane to Switzerland. Along with filming the announcement, Sabia ended up filming Federer’s last twelve days on the court as he said farewell to fans at the 2022 Laver Cup tournament in London.

But that moment turned into something bigger: “Federer: Twelve Final Days,” coming to Prime Video on June 20, is an intimate and emotional portrait of those final days on the circuit as a professional player.

Enter documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia.

Normally, Kapadia works solo; this was the first time he’d have a doubles partner in Sabia. “It’s fun to do things differently. Joe had done all that work, had the relationship, shot it, was there in the room, cut it, and then did a version of a film,” Kapadia said. “I get a message saying, ‘Would you be interested in directing this film about Federer? Someone has put this together, and would you be interested in turning it into a feature?’”

Admittedly, the “Amy” director was hesitant. He wasn’t sure if the project would be right for him, but as someone in his 50s with children, Kapadia was more aware of life. “I thought this was really moving,” he said after watching an early edit.

No stranger to sports documentaries (“Senna,” “Diego Maradona”), Kapadia was fascinated by the idea of someone whose career ends when they’re in their 40s and “they’re trying to figure out, ‘What do I do in my life?’ I found that quite powerful and emotional. It felt different to anything I’ve done before.”

From the offset, the film would always be framed within a specific period: 12 days.

Sabia’s first cut was around 63 minutes of those last 12 days. “Asif came in and added 30 extra minutes of very rich, intentional and smart archive to just do what it needed to do to support the 12 days and do nothing more than that,” said Sabia.

The documentary uses archival footage subtly. The idea was not to excavate his entire history, but rather use the footage to provide both historical and emotional context. “We go back to when he’s young with his parents, see him and the way he moves on court, and the very essence of him as a player,” Kapadia explained.

They ditch the long rallies and talking heads. Instead, there’s a shot of his feet, his one-handed backhand and his forehand, all the shots synonymous with what made him one of the most beloved and greatest players in history. “You see he’s beautiful to watch, and it wasn’t about getting the best rally or every moment of it,” he added.

Editor Avdhesh Mohla also happened to be a tennis fanatic and helped by bringing his expertise of Federer’s career to the table.

“He’s a hardcore tennis fan and saw every match Federer ever had in Wimbledon, including Junior Wimbledon,” Kapadia said of Mohla. “So a lot of it came from him knowing ‘Oh, that’s a particular moment, or there’s a particular shot and there’s a really famous return.’”

Aside from the archival footage, the history of tennis is woven into the storytelling. John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver are all featured within the 12 days, as well as current players Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.

“Within those 12 days, you’ve got all of these generations of players,” Kapadia said. “And we don’t know which of those young ones that we see is going to go on to become one of the greats.”

Ultimately, the format of the documentary was a simple countdown to retiring.

Kapadia connected with one particular line in the documentary. “It’s incredibly sad: ‘Athletes die twice.’ That’s what we’re talking about. We’re witnessing a death. They’re all crying. They all have a breakdown, but they’re gonna get on with their lives. [Federer] even says, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now, what comes next?’ It’s really emotional. I think that’s what connects with me.”

The emotional journey of what happens next is something Kapadia hopes audiences will find appealing, and not just tennis fans.

“It’s very layered and complex and dealing with big issues about family, life, retirement, death and closure — closure on a huge point of your life, friendships and relationships,” he said, adding, “It’s certainly the ending of love with tennis, with his fans and that relationship with Nadal.”

Sabia noted that the documentary explores Federer experiencing a loss of identity as a professional tennis player. The original title card was different to the final title, according to Sabia, but alluded to that loss.

“The film title that we put in this very rough edit was ‘I Was A Professional Tennis Player,'” Sabia revealed.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.