When a player has been as masterfully and consistently top of his game as Roger Federer, how does he know when it is time to call it a day? Last tennis season when the Swiss maestro skipped the French Open and later took a six month break from the game to recover from knee surgery, many sportswriters felt the curtains had been quietly rung down on an illustrious career. The last major crown for ‘Fedex’, he of the silky smooth style and swift finishing, had come in 2012 at the Wimbledon Centre Court where he extended his record haul of Grand Slam titles to 17. After that peak, Federer in the next three seasons seemed to have begun moving downhill. From 2013 to 2016, he maged to get into only 3 fils at the Majors, while going out in the semis from another five. As his great rival ‘Rafa’ dal too began to misfire while new kids on the block Novak Djokovik and Andy Murray began their own rivalry for the top spot, Federer seemed firmly in his swansong phase. After injuries and embarrassing defeats, the murmurs grew louder why he was hell bent on prolonging the inevitable. The soft spoken genius even began spping at reporters who hinted he might as well hang up his racquet for good and sit back to contemplate over his great achievements. So this year in January as he began his Australian Open campaign seeded a lowly 17th, there were not many takers ‘Fedex’ would advance far in a tourment he has won 5 times in the past. By the time he was through at Melbourne Park, Federer at the ripe old age of 35, had mauled four top-10 players, slugged it out through three 5-setters, reserved his best for a rip-roaring fil against old nemesis dal who had earlier beaten him 23 times out of 34 meetings, and clinched Grand Slam title number 18. In his victory speech though, Federer seemed to wonder whether he would be back next year. But judging from his Wimbledon triumph on Sunday, ‘Fedex’ has climbed a pincle all his own, not even dropping a set in his favourite tourment. In the Open era, only the great Swede Bjorn Borg has won Wimbledon in as commanding fashion, but then his tally stands at five, albeit consecutive, compared to Federer’s eight crowns at the All England Club.
Unlike Borg who retired at 26 due to burnout, Federer seems to have found his second wind at 36 in an age when the tennis circuit is packed round the year. But he seems to recognise the end would be coming sooner than later. No wonder Federer has been talking lately about staying healthy and playing smart — of striking the right balance between “enough practice, enough matches, enough time off”. He will be cutting down on tennis fixtures for sure, though he has promised to play in the US Open this year and defend his Wimbledon crown next year. But listening intelligently to the body is one thing, staying immune from the delusions of the mind is another. Many a great sportsman have ended up spoiling wonderful career records by forgettable endings. Even Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest’ who won the world heavyweight boxing crown three times, should have known better than try coming back yet again against former sparring partner and rising star Larry Holmes. Closer home, many feel Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev put off their retirement a tad late. However, Sunil Gavaskar crossed 10,000 Test runs in his last series and was dismissed just 4 runs short of what would have been a battling century against Pakistan in Bangalore in 1987. But then it was Gavaskar who had once said that one should retire when people ask “Why?” instead of “Why not?” The phenomel Michael Phelps, who did all that a swimmer can only dream of with 8 swimming golds in 2008 Beijing Olympics, came down to 4 golds in what was touted as his farewell Olympics in London in 2012, and stared at an ignominious exit two years later after suspension by the US Swimming Association for driving under influence of alcohol. But he was not to be denied a fairytale ending in 2016 Rio Olympics with 5 golds to take his overall gold haul to 23, having first successfully convinced his sceptical coach that he wasn’t “training for history, for the medals or for all the fans, but because he now wanted to swim for himself... and enjoy the journey”. On Sunday, Roger Federer said something on similar lines when he told reporters: “I don’t mind the practice. I don’t mind the travel. I always felt like I played my best on the biggest courts.” So with his Grand Slam tally up to 19 now, Federer still has the love for the game and its big stage to keep him going. And how does he guard himself from delusions of yet more glory that may not be forthcoming? This is where his support team comes in handy. They have been instructed to tell him honestly how well they rate his chances of willing majors against the best on a regular basis. And so far, they have given him well considered assessments, that “anything is possible if he remains 100 percent healthy”. Which is why Fedex is teaching the sports world about how to last the distance, to adapt, leverage one’s experience, avoid burnout and enjoy it while its lasts.