Leander Paes is 40. He has just won his latest Grand Slam doubles title, number 14, with Radek Stepanek, at the US Open. No one, at the moment at least, is discussing Paes’ retirement plans. Sachin Tendulkar is also 40. He has not scored a century in a while. His form has been sketchy. But his retirement has been a hot topic for discussion for at least two years, if not more.
Roger Federer is 32. Since 2013 has been an exceptionally bad year for him so far, the retirement question is exploding above his head. He reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open, the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and won the title at Halle. Those are the highlights. He could not defend a slew of titles from 2012, including Wimbledon. Those are the disappointments.
Some fans and sportswriters feel that Federer’s time is up. He should go gracefully rather than suffer any further indignity. But surely that is the sentimental view? Paes, Tendulkar and Federer — to name just three who face this riddle of the right age to stop being a champion sportsperson — make their living by their respective sports. That is who they are. How long they want to play, what “humiliation” they are willing to put up with, is their decision, surely?
The case for Tendulkar is different because he belongs in a team. But a man with the experience he has and the enormous impact he has had on Indian cricket perhaps needs a bit of leeway and a longer rope. The time will come sooner rather than later, with or without the cricket board looking for the right venue for him to play his 200th Test and every other cricket writer running to their Ouija board to find out from the spirits when he will retire.
But Federer? Martina Navratilova won her last Grand Slam title (New York, 2006, mixed doubles with Bob Bryan) when she was a month short of her 50th birthday. She defined and redefined herself on her own terms, once it was clear that the singles crowns had to be handed over to fresher faces.
John McEnroe continued to make tennis his life after his singles days were over. But his greatest rival, Bjorn Borg just upped and left when he was 27 to live his life. Or live it up, made many mistakes, tried to come back and was saved from himself by McEnroe when he recently tried to sell all his trophies. Steffi Graf is seemingly happy being Mrs Andre Agassi than a former formidable champion.
Billie Jean King is still the driving force in the women’s game. These are all legitimate choices. How Federer’s life will pan out only he knows and even he doesn’t. He may regain his form. He may not. He may make a last push for glory like Pete Sampras before riding into the sunset. Or he may decide to play on no matter what, like Lleyton Hewitt, despite multiple surgeries and loss in ranking.
Even the most skilful or even perceptive sportswriter can do no more than speculate. And that is about as effective as asking the parrot who picks out your fate at street corners in India.
More power to Fed’s racquet
As with Paes, I think more power to Federer’s racquet. The records will fall one day, maybe even starting today. That’s life. But I can look into my crystal ball and tell you this: There will be very few tennis players who will give a viewer the sort of sheer pleasure in the beauty of the game and the joy of achievement that Federer has. Why ask him to stop just because others are catching up? Enjoy what you can while you can. A death sentence is an extreme way to keep your sentimental ideas afloat.