In the capricious world of sport, not even the greatest can be certain of getting what they deserve
If self-deception is an art, one that evolved to aid survival and fitness in another era, but is something that can be a double-edged sword, then there is one class of homo sapiens that has this trait lodged deep in its DNA. I recommend the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ highly illuminating book The Folly of Fools for those hungry for more on the subject.
Nobody — barring perhaps ageing politicians who are a law unto themselves — appears more likely to be vulnerable to deceiving themselves about their own future than legendary sportspersons.
As the long list is headed by the greatest sportsperson of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali, you can understand why Roger Federer should have convinced himself, and then sought to reassure the media — and through them his millions of fans — that he was still hoping to play, “for many more years to come.”
For an all-time great sportsman, especially one used to winning major events as a matter of habit for 10 years, this might very well seem the logical thing to say. But there is, in sport as in life, a deeply significant yet not readily accessible difference between what seems logical and what might be the harsh truth.
When the decline begins, and then gathers pace, the first weapon that comes in handy is denial. ‘No, this is really not happening to me. It was just a bad day at the office.’ Denial, of course, slowly but often excruciatingly, begets acceptance.
Then again, when the person happens to be one who has won a record 17 Grand Slam championships and never lost before the quarterfinals in 36 successive major events, such a thought might not sound self-deceptive at all.
The new reality — a flight back home midway through the first week of Wimbledon — may be unfamiliar but the road ahead may still look promising. For, if fans and the sports press tend to raise sportspersons to mythical heights, then it is only natural that the icons too buy into that at some point.
Just consider this: for the first time since 2002, when a roof over the Centre Court was still a distant dream, the Wimbledon fortnight will move into its business half without Federer’s presence — without the promise of the Swiss maestro’s colossally outrageous talent eliciting oohs and aahs from entranced fans.
“The world is but canvas to our imagination,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. And Federer, more than anyone else in his generation — some might venture to say any generation — used the wonderfully manicured turf to paint brushstrokes that turned out to be the soundtrack of the summer at London, SW 19.
In the chaotic cacophony of modern televised sport, we often find ourselves incapable of distinguishing between what is merely outstanding, but ultimately ephemeral, and what is truly transcendental and timeless.
In Federer’s case, few might have encountered this problem from the time he beat Mark Philippoussis in the final in 2003 to win the first of his seven Wimbledon titles. Unlike his hero Pete Sampras — who Federer famously ousted in the fourth round in 2001 — the Swiss genius never played coaching manual grass court tennis to stamp his authority in the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
At Wimbledon, Federer did it his way, adapting to the firmer grass, heavier balls and high bounce, as well as to advancing racquet technology that offered a bigger sweet spot. In the game’s greatest theatre, he was “unheeded, happy and near the wild heart of life,” to quote James Joyce from the classic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
As the Swiss hypnotised opponents into slavish, shell-shocked acquiescence, he turned many of us into incurable addicts to a brand of excellence rarely witnessed in sport, and even more rarely stretched to a period of 10 long years.
Even if he never wins a match again on what he might have come to believe was his backyard, Federer’s place in the game’s most celebrated championship cannot be found anywhere but at the very top. The only player I would rank alongside the Swiss is Sampras.
It is intriguing to imagine how things might have turned out if one had played in the other’s era — that is, if they had come face to face often enough, when both were at their peaks. But these things are best left to individual imagination, for they can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
And then, the concept of greatness itself is rather amorphous. Was Sampras a greater grass court player than Federer? The American’s breathtaking speed and athleticism as he followed his first and second serves to the net, and his supreme touch while volleying, would have meant that Federer might have had to come up with miraculous stuff to pass him.
But these debates can go on an on. The point is, for over 20 years, starting in 1993 when Sampras beat Jim Courier for the first of his seven titles, Wimbledon has been fortunate to showcase the skills of two of the greatest players of all time.
For many of us who were hooked on Sampras, it was Federer who made sure that we did not suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms. This meant a lot to us then. But we never really looked at it that way because beauty can smother meaning — and the sheer consciousness-altering luminosity of Federer’s tennis had a reality-deflecting quality to it.
Sampras went on to stun his critics a few weeks after losing to George Bastl in the second round at Wimbledon in 2002 as he beat Andre Agassi to win his 14th major in New York. He never played a match again as a professional.
Federer certainly deserves as memorable and triumphant an exit. But in the capricious world of sport, not even the greatest can be certain of getting of what they deserve.
This article has been corrected for a factual error