The wins aren't coming like they used to, but Roger Federer isn't ready to hang up his racket just yet. Nor should he
This is an article from the Aug. 26, 2013 issue
There was a time, not long ago, when Roger Federer's annual run through tennis's summer hard-court circuit was akin to a Springsteen tour or a traveling Matisse exhibit. The usual groupies and fans would show up in full force. But the prospect of watching a performer at the peak of his powers was also a cultural event. Donald Trump, Robert De Niro, Anna Wintour and Michelle Obama were among those making appearances at Federer's matches. So were Joey Votto, Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods.
But when Federer arrives in New York City for next week's U.S. Open, the attraction will be just as much rubbernecking as wide-eyed awe. Be clear: This is not a nostalgia tour. The masses will come armed with their adoration and their hopes that he will win big. But there is also a nagging sense that this represents a catch-him-while-you-still-can opportunity.
After five solid years of almost parodic excellence, either Federer stagnated in his late 20s or the rest of the field caught up. He came to resemble a flickering light. Sometimes he burned bright, say during his run to the 2012 Wimbledon title. Other times he was diminished. We were O.K. with that.
But lately, as he creeps toward his mid-30s, Federer's flame has been snuffed. He is now ranked No. 7 in the world, his lowest mark in a decade. At Wimbledon last month, one of Federer's more astounding records—36 straight quarterfinal appearances at Grand Slam events—was snapped most unceremoniously. Playing on the Centre Court lawn to which he once had unofficial squatting rights, Federer was dismissed by Sergiy Stakhovsky, a Ukrainian journeyman ranked outside the top 100. While Roger Nation tried gamely to dismiss this as a fluke, in Federer's next tournament he lost to 114th-ranked Federico Delbonis of Argentina. You are well within your rights to ask, Who?
Somehow we don't much care that Cary Grant took his last role in a clunker of a movie called Walk Don't Run. Or that Robert Plant, who turns 65 later this month, is still touring, unable to hit the high notes without straining his larynx, the songs no longer remaining the same. Perhaps because there are scoreboards and scorecards and all those empirical measures, we are less forgiving of aging athletes. They aren't defined by their ignominious ends. But damn if we don't recall Michael Jordan unable to elevate for the Wizards, Muhammad Ali getting pummeled by Trevor Berbick, Willie Mays stumbling in the Shea Stadium outfield.
As SI went to press on Monday night, Father Time was still undefeated for his career. Eventually he takes down the mightiest of giants. He is, however, particularly ruthless to athletes in tennis. In team sports irreversible decline can be stalled, if not altogether masked, by making that Pujolsian downshift from everyday position player to designated hitter. Or by picking the right situation and then transitioning from starter to specialist. (See: Allen, Ray.) Even in boxing the fighter deep into his 30s can handpick opponents—cough, cough, Floyd, cough, cough, Mayweather—unable to exploit slowed reflexes or a drop in power.
Those options don't exist in tennis. Aging players are out there all exposed, no fig leaves in sight. They either win or they don't, and there is no graceful compromise. Lose a little juice on your serve, and opponents punish you on the return. Lose a step of quickness—as Federer undeniably has—and you get run from one corner to the other.
Federer has treated his decline with characteristic grace. He says all the right things, failing to offer alibis, vowing to "keep working harder," only rarely mentioning the back problems that have increasingly plagued him. (Tennis code: If you play, you're fit. If you're fit, you play.) After Wimbledon he switched to a larger racket, his first real concession that changes were in order. When he promptly lost to Delbonis, he resisted attributing defeat to his tools or even the inevitable adjustment period (though he did decide to change back for the Open). "He was better than me," Federer said of the world's No. 114 player. (There's a sentence we never thought we'd write.)
Tennis does have this going for it: It takes only seven matches to win a Big Prize. Only those with stones for hearts aren't hoping that Federer can, like Pete Sampras in 2002, summon his old magic and make a run during the Open. Yet the career undertakers are already out—or active on social media, anyway—in full force, whispering nonsense about "staining a legacy" and "going out on top." Here's a personal appeal to an athlete who's been a joy to watch and, regardless of circumstance, a pleasure to cover. Eventually you'll hang it up, Roger. But for now, hang in there, soak up the worldwide applause, take a victory lap—and if you can fire up a few performances for the memory banks, so much the better. We'll remember the fat years. Stay on stage as long as you can. Take your time leaving. As Cary Grant might advise: Walk, don't run.
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At 28, Marion Bartoli calls it quits
Long known for her eccentricity and disregard for convention, France's Marion Bartoli outdid herself last week. Barely a month after unexpectedly winning the Wimbledon women's singles title, Bartoli abruptly announced her retirement, effective immediately. "[Wimbledon] was probably the last little bit of something that was left inside me," said Bartoli, 28. "My body was really starting to fall apart."
Other players responded to the announcement with shock and awe. A sign of the times, there was also dark speculation as to Bartoli's motive. The WTA, however, tells SI that it does not expect her to file official retirement papers "in the foreseeable future"—meaning that she remains subject to antidoping protocols. (Translation: It's highly unlikely that she quit because she failed a drug test.) History tells us this may be an indefinite leave of absence cloaked as a retirement; once Bartoli can replenish the mental and physical reserves, she may follow the path of Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, et al., and stage a return. (If you're wondering: The French term for unretirement is dé-retraité.) Whatever, Bartoli wasn't out of work long: She will be a commentator for Eurosport at the U.S. Open.