Athletes chase fairy tales, not fairy-tale endings
It’s been a couple of weeks since Roger Federer lifted the Australian Open trophy, beating arch-frenemy Rafael Nadal in five sets to sign off on a tournament that seemed scripted specifically for tennis romantics around the world.
Enough has been written about the grand symmetry of it all, even more about the sumptuousness of the Swiss magician’s backhand, his footwork, his incredible work-rate, and his pleasantly startling refusal to crumble after going a break of serve down in the final set.
This win, consensus seems to suggest, sealed his greatness once and for all. His 18th Grand Slam title—coming four years, six months and 21 days after his 17th—was both beautiful and unexpected.
It also provides the perfect context for a debate on whether or not athletes should be expected to “quit when they’re on top”—a discussion that haunts every ageing, fading superstar to his sporting grave.
Most fans and experts, let’s be honest, wished Federer had retired after winning Wimbledon in 2012—Nadal had had his number for as long as one could remember, but within a year of that win, even one-time upstarts Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were beating him regularly. What was the point of going on? Why tarnish such a beautifully crafted legacy?
In my mind, there are two separate answers. First, legends of the game don’t tarnish their legacies by carrying on past their time. In fact, percentage-wise, there’ll be more superstars who faded out of their sport than not. When history eventually judges him, Federer would not have been a lesser man had he lost in Melbourne last month.
More importantly, how difficult must it be for elite sportspersons (none of whom would have had a life outside their arenas since age 3 or thereabouts) to suddenly stop doing what they’ve done day in and day out for the last three decades of their lives?
Should Tiger Woods, whose patched-up body is putting him through immense pain and unbearable humiliation, throw in the towel? Or, at age 41, should he keep chasing one final miracle? One four-day stretch when everything—his knees, his swing, his putter, the universe—bends to his every wish, obeys his every command?
Top-level athletes know when their bodies start behaving differently. They don’t need slow-motion videos to tell them their reflexes have gotten slower—that they’re seeing the ball a millisecond late, that their feet are moving a little sluggishly, that they’re tiring quicker than they used to. But these are also men and women who believe they can beat any odds, smash any new obstacle—after all, they’ve achieved what they have by strongly believing in their superhuman abilities.
The dynamics are slightly different in a team sport.
Here too, true legends aren’t diminished by botched-up endings. Kapil Dev remains one of India’s greatest cricketers, even if he did kind of limp into the sunset. The big difference is that putting off retirement could affect the team’s performance—in most cases, they end up keeping younger, better players out of the side. Still, should the responsibility of calling it quits lie with the athlete or the selectors?
There were suggestions that Federer should’ve announced his retirement after winning in Melbourne last month, just like Pete Sampras had done after beating Andre Agassi in the 2002 US Open final. I, for one, am glad he didn’t.
Athletes chase fairy tales, not fairy-tale endings. Why stop when there’s the possibility of one more, however slim? Imagine, for example, Federer winning Wimbledon a few months from now. Slam No.19 at SW19—surely that’s a story worth chasing.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.