‘God is dead’; ‘Philosophy is dead’; but is Roger Federer dead yet? There are, and of course, there will be people who agree to Nietzsche and Hawking; but no one will drink to the third, however profound that may sound.
An interesting thing that I’ve noticed is how people react to Federer’s declining form, and the brewing question regarding his retirement. It is of no surprise that a majority want him to stay, and their faith in the prowess of the maestro is unwavering as the biblical ‘House on the Rock’. Indeed. He can add one more major, that goes without saying, if not touch the 20 mark.
Pete Sampras, at the peak of his career, once told a reporter that he had always fancied breaking golfing legend Jack Nicklaus’ 18 Grand Slam record. Though Sampras fell short at 14, he had little doubt about Federer claiming that feat in some time, and he predicted the same after the Swiss had won the 2009 French Open title, leveling Sampras’ 14 Grand Slam record.
Even though it’s a different sport altogether, I can hazard an opinion that Federer might break Nicklaus’ insurmountable 18 mark some day. As I said before, that faith in Federer is steadfast, for there is enough lees left in his barrel. He is not scraping its bottom; at least not yet.
In Sampras’ case, this wasn’t the same. The cries for his blood were more intense, and he was put through the mill while his career was limping towards retirement in the late 90s. Critics said his number was up when it took him three years and three Wimbledon titles to close the gap of Roy Emerson’s record number of 13 Grand Slam titles after winning the Aussie Open and Wimbledon in 1997, the last time he ever won two Slams in a single year. Sampras was 26 then.
The stats show Sampras’ form declining in his late 20s. He didn’t even make it to the finals of any majors other than Wimbledon between 1997 and 2000. Federer, on the other hand, has an ample list when pitted against Sampras. The last time he clinched more than a single Slam was in the year 2009 when he won both the French Open and Wimbledon back to back. Not to mention that he was also a runner-up at both the Australian Open and US Open that very year. Clearly, he had an edge over Sampras.
In terms of Grand Slam drought, Sampras stands with 797 days (2 years, 2 months, 5 days), between 2000 Wimbledon and 2002 US Open ; Federer stands at 890 ( 2 years, 5 months, 9 days), between 2010 Australian Open and 2012 Wimbledon. Here, Sampras scores over Federer.
During the said span, Sampras had to face shameful defeats, that too in straight sets, at the hands of much younger players like Marat Safin ( 6-4, 6-3, 6-3) and Lleyton Hewitt (7-6, 6-1, 6-1) in the 2000 and 2001 US Open finals respectively. We watched the veteran’s legs fumble, and they were of no match to the agility and pace of his youthful opponents. It wasn’t palpable to watch a legend schlepping in mediocrity, and the question whether it was high time for Pistol Pete to call it a day seemed pretty pertinent then. Yet, the unrelenting champion finally was saved by the bell when he amended his lackluster performance with a spectacular show the following year, defeating arch-rival Andre Agassi, and finishing off the business he started 12 years back – at the same Flushing Meadows, against the same rival. In every way, it was a befitting swan-song for Sampras.
Sampras’ win took his critics by surprise; although he himself felt there was little left in him to prove with his racket. That was the last we ever saw him play; and there was nothing odd when he officially announced his retirement the following year. It was not as shocking as his win. He was 32 then.
If tomorrow, a 32-year-old Roger Federer announces his decision to retire from professional tennis, it will strike us like a lightning. People will react to that with shock, disbelief, anger, grief; everything but acceptance. Something like that is incomprehensible even hypothetically. For tennis lovers and popular media, Federer is not dead yet.
Did Sampras have this luxury? No! However much we agree to the statement that Sampras’ greatness is overshadowed by Federer; given the fact that the latter takes precedence when it comes to stats, stamina and even technique, it is worth considering that it would have been rightful for the media to cut Sampras some slack then, rather than criticising his wife or blaming his marriage for the decline of his form. They were not so generous to Sampras as they are to Federer now.
Rubbing salt to his wound was the parting with his long-time sponsor Nike, who is said to have offered a less lucrative deal owing to the crumbling economy. USA TODAY then reported a humiliated Sampras ‘searching for a seamstress to sew American flags over the Nike logos on his apparel’. Not exactly a pleasing story to associate with a tennis great!
Sports also mean business, and lack of charisma combined with an untimely slump served as an ‘Achilles heel’ for Sampras. Nike did what they had to do when they felt Sampras wasn’t selling anymore as they themselves were facing the chill wind of recession. It was odd to see the American play with a US flag stitched over the Nike logo at the 2002 Australian Open championship.
Nike finally extended an olive branch and put the swoosh back on his tee. And before matters could get any worse, Sampras, in a blaze of glory, clinched his 14th and last major at Flushing Meadows that year.
Something like the above is unlikely to happen to a suave Federer, who is hailed for his charm by Anna Wintour herself. Forbes has listed him as the numero uno among the world’s ‘most powerful athletes’. He is also the second highest-paid athlete after Tiger Woods, earning $71.5 million a year. According to Forbes:
Federer rises to the top for athletes’ power thanks to his marketability, which is higher than more polarizing athletes like Tiger Woods and LeBron James. Federer is also popular in the press with the most print mentions of any athlete over the last 12 months. (Courtesy: Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes) .
The good thing for Federer is, not just the tennis fans, but the media too is in no hurry to write him off; for he is a darling of the press, and his market value is way higher when compared to Sampras. The polls prove that, even though it’s a close call. He will continue so for some more time, for the pop culture loves to feed on our psyche which is so acclimated to the iconic Federer, a sacrosanct archetype of glory! He is an ideal that will keep inspiring us, and we want him to continue so. Moreover, the question whether he should retire or not is not up to us.
In Roger Federer’s case, even though there are clouds on the horizon, the last ivy leaf is still there, and very green; too bad it wasn’t there for Pete Sampras.