To begin with, very few great athletes ever walk away in their prime. Jim Brown did. Barry Sanders did, if you consider him truly great. A few others — Marciano, Clemente — died tragically before the picture of their decline was allowed to come fully into view.
But in the main — almost to a one — our athletic icons linger before us and wilt. Witnessing them in the full bloom of their talent, they appear fixed forever in a state of animated wonder. And no matter how many times we see our greatest champions dissipate with age, there is always a tendency to react with surprise. Maybe it isn’t really surprise, but a sort of human vanity in masquerade. Watching the beauty of youth devolve into something coarse and vulnerable represents an affront to our deepest desires for ourselves. Maybe it is even a manifestation of sheer mortal anxiety. Whether we root for the individual in question or not, witnessing an exemplar of physical greatness erode into something far more commonplace tends to be disturbing.
In the past eighteen months, Roger Federer has become a textbook instance of this phenomenon.
As recently as 2007, Federer was regarded by tennis intelligentsia and the general public alike as perhaps the finest player ever to have lived. So fabled were his skills, so elegant and seemingly effortless was his manner on the court that he seemed at times to have metabolically altered the entire sport. He overpowered and out-thought opponents. He curved and shaped unreturnable ground strokes in an illusory manner, like magic tricks. No less an admirer than David Foster Wallace remarked in an insightful appreciation published in the New York Times: “he appears to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.”
The sheer physical beauty of Federer’s peak game provided, for a time, the impression of unassailable perfection. He was ranked #1 in the world for 237 consecutive weeks and his procession to the top of every meaningful standard of tennis greatness was considered a mere formality. But, inevitably, Federer’s long run of greatness took a turn.
When the then teenaged Rafael Nadal began routinely defeating Federer in the mid 2000’s, it was regarded at first as a sort of curiosity. So thorough was Federer’s dominance over his various other rivals that his persistent struggles with the powerful and resourceful young Spaniard felt like little more than an intriguing sidelight. It seemed that maybe there was some tic or gimmick that Nadal was using to get over on Federer, and that the great champion would figure it out soon enough and proceed to restore order. Over time, however, it was apparent that something far more significant was happening. Nadal was exposing real vulnerabilities in Federer’s game and placing real doubts in his mind. Nothing of Federer’s peculiar wizardry seemed to intimidate or even impress Nadal. He bulldozed Federer on clay and hard courts, and came closer and closer to beating him on grass.
Then, in the finals of last year’s French Open, Nadal annihilated Federer. The 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 savaging belongs on a short list with the most humiliating defeats ever issued to an elite athlete near his prime.
It was deeply unpleasant to watch — even Nadal seemed uncomfortable.
When Nadal’s victory in the Wimbledon finals the following month brought an end to Federer’s streak as #1, the sense of final, exhausted acquiescence was palpable.
Much sooner than anyone ever expected, something of Roger Federer is dying.
The unique mystery of his samurai grace on the court has been brutally exposed and at the too soon age of 27, he has commenced a clear downward trajectory. Opponents feared him less and what once appeared an unimpeachable legacy as the best ever is very much in doubt.
In the ensuing months, a melancholy has gathered around Federer as the aura of magic seeps from him gradually, almost ineffably, as vapor from a bottle. After losing to Nadal in the finals of the Australian Open earlier this year, Federer stood on the court sobbing. It did not seem a histrionic or self-aggrandizing gesture— there was something genuinely sad happening. A few weeks later, Sports Illustrated published a harsh but fair article entitled “How Rafael Nadal Humbled Federer”.
Paradoxically, for all which he has lost, the current impasse represents an opportunity for Federer to gain stature of an even more rarified kind. The last two rounds of this week’s French Open will determine a great deal about how Federer is remembered. As the #2 seed, Federer has played brilliantly at times and erratically at others, but well enough to make it into the semi-finals. The real news was the shocking upset of Nadal, the four time defending champion who was beaten for the first time ever in 31 matches at Roland Garros, setting the stage for Federer to either cement his legacy as one of the all time greats, or in all likelihood, tarnish that reputation for good.
It is rare to see the distillation of so long and distinguished a career into a single event. One analogy is a slightly faded Muhammad Ali facing George Foreman for the heavyweight title in 1974. Early in his career, Ali had, like Federer, dazzled with transcendent physical talent which seemed to rewrite the rulebook for the entire sport. He was untouchable and impervious, and utterly without peer. Until he wasn’t. By the time Ali faced Foreman he had suffered through a government imposed layoff for refusing to serve in Vietnam and had been badly slapped around by Joe Frazier and Ken Norton during his comeback. No one thought of Ali as a one of a kind physical marvel any longer, and no one expected him to beat Foreman. When he did win — more with wits, courage and guile than superior skill — Ali entered a pantheon reserved for athletes who are loved as much for their will to persevere as for their inherent physical attributes. It seems the same impulse which causes us to feel disturbed at the site of a great athlete in obvious decline, create extraordinary affection for those who manage to succeed despite their new found limitations.
Should Federer manage to overcome the welter of difficulty that has plagued his performance over the past year and triumph in the French, his legacy will be secure. He will have established a record of greatness on all four surfaces, and he will have erased the memory of last year’s devastating Waterloo. Furthermore, he will have achieved this at a time of profound vulnerability, when questions surrounding his career have shifted from whether he is the best player of all time to whether he was ever as good as his contemporary. Win and Federer belongs in a conversation with any individual who has ever played the sport. Lose and he is something of an enigma, a spectacular talent seemingly undone psychologically by one resolute rival.
The stakes could not be higher, and regardless, the outcome will be poignant.