Why it’s time for Federer to walk away – with dignity intact
It passed almost unnoticed, but within four days of Roger Federer toasting his 40th birthday this month, Pete Sampras turned 50. Seldom can two men, whose records invite constant parallels, have displayed such divergent philosophies on life beyond tennis.
Even as Federer releases a video to confirm his third knee surgery in 18 months, he still cannot bring himself to talk openly of retirement. His predecessor was hewn from less sentimental stock. Sampras won the 2002 US Open, beating Andre Agassi in four sets for his 14th major title, and never played a professional match again.
Such flawless endings are vanishingly rare in sport. Scripting a curtain call on your own terms is difficult enough, never mind throwing in one last masterclass when you have nothing left to prove. But where Sampras understood the art of leaving the audience wanting more, so did Dan Carter, who marked his farewell to the All Blacks by scoring 19 points in the 2015 World Cup final, perhaps the most dazzling star turn of his career.
To revisit Federer’s 2019 Wimbledon epic against Novak Djokovic is to realise that he, too, held the chance of “walk-off glory” in his grasp. At 8-7, 40-15, he had the championship on his racquet: just one more booming first serve would seal a ninth All England Club triumph, extending his grass-court supremacy over every man who had come before. Instead, two nervy points ensured this version of immortality was denied.
Ever since, Federer has been acquiring grand-slam firsts of a bleaker nature. At this season’s French Open, exhausted by a third-round duel with Dominik Koepfer – an opponent he would normally have rolled over in third gear – he withdrew, gifting a walkover at the majors for the first time. On his return to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, framing the ball to all corners against Hubert Hurkacz, he signed off with the only set at Wimbledon he had lost 6-0. If this was indeed the parting act, it felt like a discordant note on which to conclude his symphony.
Still he refuses to accept that the light has gone out. Federer’s two-minute update for his fans on Instagram had all the hallmarks of a great athlete accepting that he had run out of road. There were teary eyes, plus telling concerns about his long-term general health. There was even, in a magisterial example of Federer hauteur, a “big thank you for all the messages that are going to be coming in”. When you belong to his rarefied realm, helpless veneration is a given.
Roger Federer’s legacy is intact for generations to come.Credit:Getty
Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the r-word. It is as if he has banned any reference to retirement because he can hardly bear the thought of it.
At one level, this is curious: if Federer were to hang up his immaculate whites tomorrow, he would not be falling into the void. With a £325 million ($615m) fortune, he could sustain an entire industry out of simply being himself. His Uniqlo deal runs until 2029, so convinced are his Japanese shirt sponsors that he will still be making a mint for them at the age of 48.
But Federer will not transition easily to being a mere clothes horse. Brilliant though he might be at masking his feelings on court, he has always experienced tennis as a craft of intense emotion. After at last subduing Koepfer on a deserted Court Philippe Chatrier in June, he reflected: “J’adore le tennis. You’ve got to love what you do, and I do.” To shut off any route back would leave him bereft, even if he has two sets of twins to nurture and a Swiss ranch the size of a small subdivision.
“His eventual departure will trigger mass anguish among his disciples. But do not underestimate the distress it will cause the man himself.”
In contrast, Sampras was wired like an android. When he took one last New York ovation 19 years ago, his reaction was one of relief it was all over. Rather than staying around for mawkish video montages, or a late-night booking with David Letterman, he flew home to Beverly Hills, his every ambition fulfilled. He has barely moved since, refusing all interview requests, convinced that there is nothing to add to his story.
For Federer, such a decision is more fraught, with tennis less a job to him than an expression of his soul. Few can forget the sight of him dissolving in tears after his Australian Open defeat by Rafael Nadal in 2009, saying: “God, it’s killing me.” His eventual departure will trigger mass anguish among his disciples. But do not underestimate the distress it will cause the man himself.
Any hope of calling it a day with a cinematic flourish has surely passed.
When Federer insists that there remains a “glimmer of hope”, it appears a case of romance trumping reason. The only other man to stay in the top 10 beyond 40 was Ken Rosewall, and he did not have a troublesome knee with which to contend. Federer’s retirement, loath though everyone is to admit it, has been announced in all but name. He deserves to step away not just with his body of work secure for generations, but with his dignity intact.
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