In a remarkable essay on tennis player Roger Federer, the late writer David Forster Wallace suggests that watching Federer is akin to a religious experience. For a writer known for his maximalist style, this claim is not such hyperbole.
Federer is one of those athletes, like Tiger Woods, whose skill and success has drawn in the fanatic, casual and disinterested sports spectator. His championship matches at the four Grand Slam tournaments, including some that he has lost, have become events. Federer's match against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last year didn't have the social thickness of Ali-Liston, but as a moment of athletic beauty, the match was unmatched in recent memory.
There has been plenty said on what makes Federer such a lethal combination of grace and power, and so let me just briefly add a few more lines here. I tend not to like athletes who win as often and effortlessly as Federer has for much of this young century. I didn't root for Michael Jordan and I don't want Tiger to win. I appreciate what they do, but their wins don't give me any satisfaction.
While he is part of this group, Federer feels different. Great athletes arrive on the scene with raw talent and skinny arms. As their confidence grows, so do their biceps and shoulders. But Federer seems to be in the same body he had when he won the first of five Wimbledon titles in his early 20s. In this, he almost seems human, but of course he is not.
Lately, however, he has been showing signs of slowing down, of being human after all. He has been losing. A lot. To Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open and to Nadal at the French, but also at Wimbledon and the Australian, two tournaments where Federer has dominated in the past several years. And just last week, he lost to Andy Murray in the desert of Palm Springs.
Is this a dry spell, or at the ripe age of 27, are we seeing the start of Federer's decline?
Professional sports have always been a young man's game. However, the changes in workout regimens — and the evolving science of nutrition and exercise — have allowed older athletes to remain competitive. We may be entering a period when such better conditioning makes experience — alongside traditional factors such as skill, speed, sports IQ, mental stamina, etc. — a source and category of success that is different from how we have traditionally understood the term.
Everywhere you look, athletes are performing at high levels into their 30s and 40s. At 45, Vijay Singh is golf's graying workout king, coming off one of his best years; in the NFL, 37-year-old Kurt Warner is having a resurgence; at 41, swimmer Dara Torres won three silver medals in Beijing. And when the baseball player Julio Franco retired in 2007, he was a year shy of 50.
In tennis, there have been two basic trends in the past three decades among top players when it comes to age and continued performance at Grand Slam tournaments.
Borg won his 11 Grand Slam titles and retired at 26. Though he continued to play until he was older, McEnroe won his seven by the time he was 25. Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander won in their early and mid-20s.
Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, on the other hand, won into their early 30s, even though a bulk of their wins came in their 20s. And after starting his career as the symbol of youthful rebellion, Andre Agassi had a revival in his early 30s when he won three Grand Slam tournaments. (Both Lendl and Agassi were know for their workout discipline as they got older.)
It is a bit of a sports cliché, but Federer is at a crossroads. His 13 Grand Slam titles is a remarkable career. But if Federer is going to catch and move beyond Sampras' 14, thus placing him in a category above all these other players, something needs to change — physically, mentally or some combination of the two. He needs to change his number because Nadal certainly has it.
It's been fun watching Federer win. However, it will be interesting to watch him continue to lose and to see how he responds.
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