One of the most influential books of my youth was Nick Hornsby’s “Fever Pitch”. His candid confrontation of his soccer obsession, and how it affected his personal life, made quite the impression on my 16 year-old-sport-addicted self. Specifically, his section on former Arsenal defender Gus Ceasar struck a chord. Gus Caesar was a promising young player who made his way into the senior 1st team, climbing all way up from the youth team. Upon his inclusion in the squad however, he was guilty of some high profile mistakes and was subsequently derided by the Arsenal fanbase. In short, he never recovered from these setbacks and was soon released by the club. Just a few years later he was out of football.
Here was a player that was almost surely the best player at the youth level. When he moved up to the academy he was probably the best there as well. He was so good, he was eventually called up into the 1st team squad of the prestigious Arsenal Football Club. At every level he was the best player and he knew it. When it came to the highest level however, a simple loss of confidence undermined his skill and undid him. Hornsby writes, “One of the great things about sport is its cruel clarity: there is no such thing, for example, as a bad one-hundred-metre runner, or a hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out”. As an avid athlete, this always stuck with me. What happens when you think to yourself, “I might not be good enough”.
Roger Federer is not Gus Ceasar. Roger Federer in fact, is possibly the greatest tennis player to have ever walked the earth. Their fate however, is inextricably entwined with that of every other professional athlete. There comes a point in your career where you, as Hornsby puts it, get “found out”. It is scientific fact that as athletes age their bodies break down, their performance dips, and they can no longer compete at the level they once could. That’s not up for debate. I’m not interested in why this happens, but rather how this affects the individual when it does .
Unlike Gus and myself, Federer was able to attain sporting immortality. On the back of great skill, intelligence, and determination he sat at number 1 for nearly a decade. David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay in the New York Times titled “Federer as a Religious Experience” (which is an absolute must read for any tennis fan) perfectly articulates not only the sheer talent and detail involved in Federer’s game at it’s pinnacle, but also the impermanent nature of it. Wallace writes, “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled”. Though talent like his does not last forever, Federer’s play will have at this point inspired an entire generation of players.
Over the past four years or so, Federer’s immaculate plateau has began to dip. Of course this trend has not gone unnoticed and has been debated and written about (including myself) nearly as much as the successes of others. We live in a unapologetic “current” society in the sense that public opinion changes with the force of a soccer mob from Hornsby’s youth. In the age of social media, four years (the last time Federer won multiple grand slams in a year) is an eternity especially when trends and fads come and go as often as the mailman. Now, I don’t want to sully Federer’s accomplishments and skills by comparing him to the Harlem Shake. It is worth noting however, how quickly you can go from the talk of the town to another body fighting for position among the crowd.
I want to revisit the statement “I might not be good enough”. Where does self-confidence come into play for Roger Federer? I’ve already established that I believe Federer to be a transcendent talent that comes as close perfection as one can come. When you’ve been as good as he has been for so long is it unacceptable to be anything but the best? Is the decline more difficult for a legend like Federer or someone who hasn’t quite made it like Gus Caesar? Either way, both men at their subsequent declines can still be considered astonishing athletes. The public perception however, is often cripplingly unfair. When it’s agreed you no longer are the best, you are suddenly crap.
Though it is difficult to watch Federer struggle and I have found myself audibly scoffing at his recent play, there is a silver lining. As I established earlier, every athlete goes through this decline one way or another. Whether a sudden injury cuts a career short or one simply fades into obscurity, careers comes to an end. With that being said, massive respect for an athlete, especially one as great as Roger Federer, stems from their decline. Can they capture lightning in a bottle? Can they adapt their game when their innate talent no longer gets them over the hump? When I think of Jack Nicklaus, Jimmy Connors, or even David Ortiz (World Series performance this year at age 38), I think of their iconic performances when people thought they were finished. These next few years will define Federer just as much as his formative years did. How he’ll handle his current position in the sport is a mystery, probably even to himself.