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.