Farewell to another lion
I didn’t shed any tears for Queen Elizabeth II until the moment I saw David Beckham enter Westminster Abbey after spending some 12 hours in line with the masses who wanted to pay final respects. I don’t know -- there was something about the way Bex looked, his emotions in full display across his face, an athlete who had sung “God Save the Queen” uncountable times while wearing a kit adorned with the three lions. It moved me.
In the midst of the pageantry and grand farewell staged by the Brits as they transition for the first time in 70 years to a new monarch – and no, I’m not here to debate the fact that we still have monarchs in the allegedly free world...but yes, please, another time – a much simpler good-bye emerged: Roger Federer, one of the greatest athletes to hold a tennis racquet, announced his retirement.
That Federer has picked London for a peaceful sendoff makes perfect sense. At this point, the city, the country, the kingdom, has to be darn tired of ceremony and hoopla. With the Queen now in her final resting place, the carriages and cars have returned to their parking spaces and the weeping, cheering crowds – some of whom stood in line alongside Beckham for unfathomable hours – have hopefully all gone to bed and gotten some well-deserved rest.
It is, then, the perfect moment for Federer, the quietest virtuoso in most any field of play, to pick up his racquet one last time.
Federer’s game has always been a work of art, perhaps the most complete game of tennis the world has ever seen. His demeanor, his attitude, feels, at times, almost non-existent, displaying an unfailing stoicism that often felt more befitting of a journeyman player enduring the grind of the tour, the circuit. The rare occasion when his temper erupted through his genteel style of play – the U.S. Open final in 2009 comes to mind – felt unsettling not only to the sport, but the world writ large.
That Federer constantly graced the court with, well, grace, enabled some to forget his brilliance in the midst of the flashier players who rose, and then almost always fell, in his midst. But watching him, as any tennis fan knows, could be experienced like, in the words of late scribe
David Foster Wallace, a religious experience, peppered with “Federer Moments” – those moments, wrote Wallace, “when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”
We often use words like effortless to describe athletes like Federer. But whether we are thinking about his one-handed backhand, or Simone Biles’ dismount from the balance beam, or the way Tom Brady releases a ball into the air, its perfect spiral leaving fans breathless until it is welcomed by a waiting receiver, the word effortless does sport no good, as it denies the hours, the sweat, and the tears of achieving elite ability, of achieving greatness.
While the label of GOAT has been under scrutiny in recent weeks in the wake of Serena Williams’ final U.S. Open – and what a glorious run that was – Federer’s stats have endured – and fallen – at the hands of the others who have made the last decade and a half a Golden Age in men’s tennis: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. While we have not seen Federer since last summer’s Wimbledon, both Djokovic (when allowed to play because of his vaccination, or lack thereof, status) and Nadal continued to chip away at his numbers. Federer’s 310 weeks at number one fell to Djokovic. Federer, the first man to nab 20 grand slam titles, now trails Nadal’s 22 and Djokovic’s 21.
Some records, of course, remain. No other male player has eight Wimbledon titles or has won as many grand slam matches – Roger will retire with 369 such notches on his belt. He owns 103 titles, second only in the Open Era to Jimmy Connors. And he remains the only athlete in the Open Era to have won their first seven Grand Slam finals.
Is there another athlete, another team, who started a career in such dominant fashion?
But now the 41-year-old says his body has sent him a message, and he’s ready to listen to it, posting to social media on September 15th that the Laver Cup will be his last dance.
He leaves behind on the court his two chief rivals, perhaps especially Nadal, who tweeted a response to Federer’s retirement announcement that included all of the right notes. Theirs has been the healthiest of rivalries, one that consisted of respect and admiration for what was happening on the other side of the net, sportsmanship for others to emulate for the ages.
Players like Roger, and Serena, too, have offered us, tennis fans, sport fans, a sense of security, their longevity and consistency, their record-breaking records, making us feel like they will be on the court for us to watch forever. Now we must cope with the fact that while there is much left for both of them to do, it will not be on the court.
Yet despite everything they’ve given us, I remain greedy for more, and but will always feel lucky to have born witness to it all.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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