By now, regular readers of my sports columns here know my schtick: I say something provocative, make a prediction about an upcoming contest that is completely, utterly wrong in retrospect—thank you Patriots, Steelers, and Miguel Cotto for nothing—and we talk about the thing behind the thing.
Sports is not about the games; those are over in a moment, and the pain, joy, and perplexity of it all barely lasts longer. You could say it’s about people, and it surely is. The “they’re just like us” angle is a pretty good one, but we all know that sports personalities are somewhere between heroes and villians, just like we are. You can overplay either one of those.
Some writers like to puncture legends, and others inflate them. But sports matter because they are a picture of humans being human—good and bad—in a semi-real space and time somewhere between our imaginations and real life.
All of us who watch sports believe there is some part of it that holds a wider meaning, whether in the activities and their results themselves, or in the shared experiences of watching them unfold. Spiritual and ethical conclusions are the most tenuous, of course. Why no one seeks forgiveness for applying the name “idol” to someone they enjoy watching, I’ll never understand. I digress. But we know it has significance because we have significance. That isn’t what I came to talk about, though.
I came to talk about Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time.
He burst on the scene a dozen or so years ago, memorably beating Sampras at Wimbledon in a true passing-of-the-torch sort of match in 2001, the British major having been Sampras’ true seat of power for his own dozen years. Even while Pete still played, he heard the “greatest ever” debate and discussion as surely as we broached it.
It was a glorious ride off into the sunset for Pete, as he left the major stage as a US Open champion, beating his longtime rival Agassi—the true Frazier to his Ali, complete with being overlooked as well—in 2002.
Sampras set the new mark for major championships at 14, which Federer cleared some time ago. He has room to spare, being two clear of Sampras, and still six clear of his main rival Rafael Nadal. He may be able to claim greater honor than Sampras, having won the French Open at Roland Garros, on the meddlesome clay Sampras could never tame, for all his greatness.
In any case, the Swiss legend is now 30 years old, unforgivably old in tennis. There is plenty left in the tank, in a sense. Federer has only three real rivals in the game at present: Nadal, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic. At any major championship, any of the other three has about a 100 percent chance of running into Federer in the late rounds. He’s always there, and to his credit, he looks scary doing it.
But I think Howard Bryant of ESPN and others are kidding themselves, as they’ve been doing for almost 2 years. Roger Federer can’t win another major. I swear to you, I want him to; I root him on every time. Roger mows through the also-rans at the average tournaments, he gets the truck rolling downhill for the big dances, and then meets his rivals for all the marbles, and he blows it.
And we’re not saying there’s some obvious decline in physical skill you can point to; there isn’t. He still does things on a tennis court that only a few could ever do, much less today. But I caught it watching him play Andy Roddick some weeks ago: he lacked the will to put him away.
Patrick McEnroe called him out during the match. He said the book on Roger was if you could create tension in a match now, you could beat him. Is this how the greatest player of all time wants to leave us? In full possession of his tennis, but not his guts? If you put it all out there and get beat because you’re old, and the other guy is better, fair enough. Connors did that. Agassi, too.
Guns a-blazing, and angry that you were standing there.
What was Connors when he made the run to the quarters at the US Open in 1990 or 1991? 41? But he made him fight for every point. He behaved as if he was still The Man. Is Federer even mad when he loses anymore?
My point is this: he isn’t spent. He’s not remotely out of his league. He’s got such great skill that he could leave any time in the next 3 years without shame or embarrassment. But do you want to see him fold at the slightest hint of pressure? For how long? If he goes now, he’s Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, or Sandy Koufax. Still great, and left because he wanted to. If he waits, he’s Ali.
Let’s save the contextualizing and celebrating for when he’s gone. I don’t want to be wistful when I watch the tapes.
Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor and Senior Sportswriter for Open for Business.