He likes doing this; that’s the point. Being on tour, being competitive, being celebrated: This stuff feels more satisfying to him than the lonely relishing of some legacy in which he had a better head-to-head record against Djokovic. So why not keep it going as long as he can? And not to get too dogmatic about what’s basically the story of a person liking his job, but isn’t that the model of grown-up maturity that we should want from an elite athlete? So often, great players in their late careers wind up eclipsed by their own narratives, their choices constrained by a whole complex of considerations involving memorialization and pride and morning-sports-zoo yell. Think about, say, the question of Kobe’s retirement — how free does that decision feel? There’s an entrapped feeling around Kobe that Federer seems to have sidestepped. And fine, maybe he wouldn’t have sidestepped that so gracefully if his decline hadn’t been so gradual, but then, that’s also part of the point. He’s living the life he actually has, not some portable-across-platforms version of the athlete’s journey.
In America, at least, how we read any great athlete’s ending still seems influenced by Michael Jordan’s merciless stage-managing of his own second retirement. (The “real” one, not the baseball one.) Hit the last shot, seize the title, never lose, never show weakness, end on a big banging chord that the audience remembers forever; then you’re a champion for all time, in the same way Cheers never closes. That this is, actually, such an impossibly grotesque and dehumanizing approach that not even Michael Jordan could resist coming back to screw it up should possibly tell us something. But there it is, an ideal that every generational-apex-type star has to contend with on some level. Any concession to the imperfect human process of finding your way toward what you want has to be understood in terms of the toll it takes on the memory you leave behind.
I can’t speak for you, but me? I’ll take Federer’s version.
[Photo Credit: AFP]