After his worst summer in a decade, Roger Federer now stands at the unfamiliar intersection between one of the greatest careers in tennis history, if not sporting history, and a precarious future as a potential also-ran in the upper echelons of the game.
After his historic record-setting run of 33 straight quarterfinal-or-better appearances at grand slams came to an abrupt end at this year’s Wimbledon, the former world No. 1 was expected to cut back his schedule, spend more time with his family and ease into the final phase of his career with one eye on his impending retirement.
However, the Swiss star decided to double down and push forward, dismissing any and all questions about stepping away from tennis. By doing so, the 17-time grand slam champion risks diminishing his historic legacy - a prospect further raised by his fourth-round defeat against Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open.
So when is the right time to walk away from a Hall of Fame career?
Eight-time grand slam winner Jimmy Connors continued almost a decade after dropping from the No. 1 spot, and in doing so managed to win over a brand new generation of fans with his heroic runs at the U.S. Open into his late 30s.
But Roger Federer isn’t Jimmy Connors. Federer isn’t known for his tenacious fighting or dogged drag-down, in-your-face, never-say-die style of play, the way a Connors or a Rafael Nadal is. He’s an artist. A magician. If a fighter goes down swinging, it enhances their mythology, but for a magician to continue long after they’ve lost the sleight of hand only serves to hurt them.
Paradoxically, less successful athletes can be commended for their resilience late in their career, such as tennis veteran Tommy Haas’ recent resurgence into the top 20 more than a decade after he reached No. 2 in the world.
However, the German - three years older than Federer at 35 - isn’t hampered by having to defend a legacy. Having overcome some serious injuries, he can now play for himself and for his fans. Federer, on the other hand, represents an era, and in many respects, the history of the game, and as such is responsible for retiring in a manner worthy of what he has achieved.
This predicament exists in all sports. Legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson waited until he had his 13th English Premier League title in his hand and enough weeks left in the fixture list to adequately say goodbye before walking away from his remarkable football career. While he would have preferred a Champions League title in his final season, the 71-year-old would have recognized the optimal timing of stepping aside on top, and took it.
For Federer's fellow tennis legend Pete Sampras, the timing of his retirement was perfect. At the 2002 U.S. Open final, he defeated his arch nemesis and compatriot Andre Agassi on the very court where he had claimed the first of his 14 grand slam titles 12 years earlier against the very same opponent. He left the court that day and never returned, making it the perfect climax to a blockbuster career.
But how can Federer match that?
Well, he did.
The perfect time for Federer to retire came after his remarkable 2012 Wimbledon triumph. There he was granted the opportunity to finish his career in a Sampras-esque fashion, calling it a day at the historic home of the game, where he had first shot to fame defeating the American back in 2001, and where two years later he claimed his first grand slam title.
However, there were two issues with retiring there and then. Firstly, the win saw Federer reclaim the world No. 1 ranking, which is a pretty tall perch from which to jump.
Secondly, and certainly of greater import, the Olympic Games were less than a month away, and to be played at Wimbledon, providing a tantalizing opportunity to win the one title that had escaped him, on the court where he was the undisputed king.
He eventually fell one match short of Olympic gold, and in doing so, missed yet another opportunity to retire in style. It forced him to wait for a third, and perhaps final chance to go out on top.
Earlier this month Federer turned 32, and while many players have won grand slams after the age of 30, recent examples are few and far between. Most notably, Sampras was 31 when he won the 2002 U.S. Open, and Agassi was 32 when he claimed the 2003 Australian Open.
Heading into those events, Sampras had contested 977 ATP Tour career matches, and Agassi 986. In contrast, Federer headed into the 2013 U.S. Open with 1,119 ATP Tour career matches under his belt. That’s over 130 more matches, or roughly two full years on the tour. That is a big difference.
Equally, Agassi’s 2003 Melbourne triumph came without facing a single top-10 player or grand slam champion. These days, to win a major one must defeat at least two of the big guns in the game, often in back-to-back matches.
With all this in mind, not to mention his recent less-than-stellar form, it’s simply hard to imagine the once unbeatable Roger Federer can still win grand slam titles. However, if the past tells us anything, it’s that writing off Federer only seems to drive him harder.
Back in 2008, Nadal surpassed him at the top of the rankings and seemed to have his number on all surfaces, leaving many to speculate that Federer would never again reach No. 1. After a year chasing the Spaniard, he was back on top.
Again, in 2011 Novak Djokovic looked invincible, forcing Federer into unfamiliar territory as the fourth-ranked player in the world, but by the end of the season he was back on track to reclaiming the No. 1 ranking, eventually surpassing Sampras' record for most weeks at the top after claiming his 17th grand slam at Wimbledon.
Therefore if for no other reason, I implore you, I welcome you, please join me one and all in collectively writing off Roger Federer. Hopefully it works, and the greatest player of all time is afforded one last opportunity to step away as a grand slam champion.