Thursday, 27 January 2011

It really is time for the god of tennis to retire to Olympus

When Roger Federer lost the Australian Open to Nadal two years ago, I was desperate for him to call it a day. I couldn’t see him winning another slam, and I just didn’t want to watch my greatest sporting hero turn into a mortal. 

As we now know, Nadal lost to Söderling at the French, Federer managed to complete a career Grand Slam at the same event before going on to win Wimbledon for the sixth time, lost in New York, and won in Australia at the start of 2010. At that stage, he looked unbeatable – but then Nadal got his knees back, and Federer failed to make the finals of the next three slams. He got himself a new coach and rallied to win the end-of-season Masters event in London in November, crumping an exhausted Nadal in the final - but in their heart of hearts, his worshippers knew the game was up.

What a perfect moment that would have been for the 29-year old to bow out. But human beings aren’t like that, so he turned up at the Australian Open determined to start the year by retaining the title and extending his slam score to an unassailable 17 (Nadal has 9, and if anyone is ever going to surpass Federer’s record, it’s the Spaniard with the sweaty bum-crack).

But he’s just lost in the semi-finals to a rejuvenated Novak Djokovic, who seems to have regained the mojo that brought him this, his only slam title, three years’ ago.

This time, Roger really does need to call it a day. He doesn’t have a single current slam title to his name. The aura of invincibility has been shattered forever. He’s still one of the greatest players in the world, but he can no longer awe his opponents into submission: they now know that even being a match point down against him isn’t a guarantee of defeat – he’s now as flaky as rest of us. 

My other great sporting hero, Rod Laver, completed his (unique) second Grand Slam (all four slams in a single calendar year) in 1969 – and never won another. He played for another seven years at the top level – but he had an excuse: the Open Tennis era had only started in 1968, and Laver didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to make some real money before retiring. Besides, it was only when Borg quit the game at the age of 26 that bowing out early became an option – before that, everyone played till they dropped. 

But Federer – like Borg – isn’t everyone. He’s the greatest genius the game has ever seen. Nadal, thanks to his supreme will-power,  is a greater match-player, but Federer has raised tennis – all sport, in fact – to a level of elegance and beauty and intelligence which I don’t expect to see matched this side of the grave (unless, of course, Emile Heskey decides to play for England again.)  

Federer’s ridiculously long list of unbelievable achievements – the sixteen slams, and the 23 slam semi-finals on the trot – may eventually be surpassed. But it won’t matter, because what makes great sportsmen great isn’t the accumulation of titles. It’s the joy we talentless millions feel as we watch them perform the impossible: like war heroes, or great artists, they show us what human beings are capable of at their very best. Yes, there’s something slightly pathetic about using sportsmen as if they were avatars in some real-time online role-playing game, achieving things we’re too untalented, lazy or frightened to even begin to attempt. But I really can’t see there’s anything wrong in experiencing joy in the presence of greatness: the shiver of excitement, that sense of “rightness” that floods through us when watching a great sportsman do what only they can do is, I’m convinced, as close as many people get to any experience of The Sublime.

Again, the fact that most of us can’t achieve anything out of the ordinary doesn’t really matter. Just because I don’t live in a beautiful mansion or drive a superb car doesn’t mean I can’t be delighted that Castle Howard or Bugatti Veyrons exist, and that someone gets to enjoy them. Similarly, I’ll never crack a six over the bowler’s head at Lords, but I’m delightedsomeone can – and that I’m allowed to watch them do it. 

For the past eight years, we have feasted on the Great Man’s balletic dancing at the back of the court – a constant miracle of poise and balance - his whipped top-spin forehand passing shots, his feathery, inch-perfect drop-shots, his hot-dogs (shots played between the legs with his back to the net), his superbly accurate serving, and those bizarre, impossible winners off shots that no one else in the history of the sport would even have reached.  

It’s up to old Twinkle-Toes what he does next. It’s hard to imagine what the game will be like without him – as his extraordinary physical gracefulness means he never gets injured, he hasn’t ever missed a slam: we haven’t experienced tennis without Federer for eight years (when most commentators were wondering how many slams Hewitt and Roddick would rack up between them over the next decade). 

But I don’t want to see Federer haunting tournaments for years to come, never quite making it to the final, being beaten by players he would have slaughtered in his glorious prime, and giving us nothing more than occasional reminders of former greatness.

Federer mustn’t turn into a side-show.

Go now, Roger, for your own sake, and for the sake of the millions of us ordinary duffers whose lives you have enriched over the years - call it a day. All political careers end in failure – sporting ones don’t have to: don’t let yours.

I’m sure Bradman and Pele will be happy to welcome you to Olympus. 

Now, onto Sunday and the Australian final: I hate to tempt fate, especially the way Djokovic is playing - but Andy Murray, who is the second most naturally gifted player after Federer, will never have a better chance of opening his slam account. Now or never, Chuckles!


  1. I was never a great tennis fan although I followed it in my youth when Pancho Gonsalez, Maria Bueno and Santana were playing. Then I witnessed Jimmy Connors furiously reading a letter from his grandma between games in order to give him inspiration and gave the whole thing a pass. The manufactured Henman hysteria didn't help as well as the saintly Sue Bloody Barker.
    Then Roger Federer came along and we had one of those rare sportsman who simply transcended their sport and national interest in general. Like Muhammed Ali, he was a supreme athlete who brought you to the edge of your seat. But like Ali, I fear he is going to go on too long. But his greatness is secured so, in the end, who cares. Who remember's Ali's decline?
    The term "Olympian" has a latin ring. Federer is Swiss-German so when he shuffles off he should join the "North-of-the Rhine" mob at Asgaard - Odin/Wotan and that lot. He'll be more comfortable there as they are a much nicer class of person. Zeus was a right son-of -bitch. I won't go on.
    Friday, January 28, 2011 - 03:14 PM

  2. Really interesting comments, Sportsfan – but I’m not sure Odin and his pals were all that cuddly!

    The Muhammad Ali comparison is apt, I think – unfortunately, I do remember his decline, and I did find it distressing. Tennis and boxing have this in common: no place to hide. Footballers can always run around for a season or two looking busy while failing to score much, and failing cricketers get an awful lot of leeway, but in one-on-one sports there’s no way of masking waning powers (in boxing, champions can refuse to meet feared rivals, but once they’re in the ring, they’re screwed). I didn’t include Ali in the pantheon of deities simply because, at various stages in his career, his behaviour let him down – particularly his taunting of Ernie Tyrrell by continuously shouting “What’s my name” at the chap (who had refused to call him anything but Cassius Clay) while reducing him to a bloody pulp. You can imagine a Greek or Norse god doing it, but nevertheless…

    I think Federer and Nadal have between them finally removed the stain left on Tennis’s reputation by the disgusting behaviour of those guutersnipes, Connors, McEnroe and Nastase. It’s once more a game for noble warriors rather than shits.

    And what is it with poor Sue Barker????
    Saturday, January 29, 2011 - 02:55 PM

  3. We'll, I said it would be now or never for Murray - so we'll take that as a never, then!
    Sunday, January 30, 2011 - 12:08 PM

  4. Yes, the Ali-Terrell contest was not good to watch. The Ali - Brian London ["The Blackpool Rock"] was even worse in 1966. London kept shouting at Ali to stand and fight like a man so Ali obliged and hit him with a 9-shot combination to the head and London went down faster than Eric the Boneless. But Ali had his noble moments. In Kinshasha when he knocked out George Foreman Ali pulled his final punch as Foreman was going down. I have always admired him for that. Liston, Frazier and Tyson would have gone for the kill.
    Andy Murray. Give the guy a chance as he's only 23, but I suspect that he's one of these players whose natural ability and talent is not suited to his temperament which in turn cannot handle the pressure of the big tournaments so he will be condemned to wins on the Dogshit, Nebraska circuit. Also, it might help if he didn't have that shrieking harridan breathing down his neck all the time.
    Sue Barker. Well, she used to go out on "dates" with Cliff Richard for starters. Also, she is usually accompanied by Hazel Irvine with her dreary accent and Bakerloo Line nostril holes which are very disconcerting. I am sorry to be ungallant, but I pay my licence fee so I have a right to my opinion.
    Monday, January 31, 2011 - 10:58 AM