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Roger Federer may not have a fairy tale ending, but that’s fine

Maybe the 39-year-old is finally finished but he has earned the right to keep on swinging

In 2017 I advised Roger Federer he was a busted flush as a Grand Slam champion. He was 35 and had not won a Slam in four years. Sands of time and all that. Plus some guff about tarnishing his legacy by continuing to try and compete. For his own sake we needed to talk about the 'R' word - retirement.

Curiously the billionaire tennis icon ignored me. To be fair he ignored a lot of similar advice. Maybe the most beloved player in the history of the sport was flooded with instructions about how it would be best if he stayed in the Alps and counted his money. Well-meaning as it might have been, Federer dismissed all of it and staged a late career renaissance that produced three more Slam victories.

And now it’s déjà vu all over again.

Only the witless could fail to recognise how poignant Federer's quarter-final exit at Wimbledon last week was. The great champion left the Centre Court stage he has dominated for almost two decades having been handed a final set 'bagel' by 24-year-old Hubert Hurckacz, an opponent practically no one knew anything about.

Never mind that reaching the quarters was a minor miracle in itself for someone on the comeback after a couple of knee surgeries and who is a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday. This was still a haggard version of the imperious figure that won Wimbledon eight times and bewitched fans with the style of how he did it. It all smacked of a tired champ taking one fight too many.

So 20 years after his momentous first centre court appearance, and that 'pass-the-baton' defeat of Pete Sampras, it felt to many like a perfect cue for Federer to exit. There's a symmetry to it. Wimbledon centre court is the greatest stage of all. Making the quarters feels like an admirable last curtain call. He's the oldest man to do it. Time perhaps to take the hint about saying adieu.

Suitable endings

The problem is that reality usually gets in the way of supposed suitable endings. Not always of course. John Elway pretty much did it by earning the ‘MVP’ in his final game in the 1999 Super Bowl. Closer to home Ruby Walsh got to go out at the top by winning a Grade 1 at his local track, retiring from the toughest game of all in one piece and waving farewell to the crowd.

But these are exceptions that prove the rule about retirement being a much more messy affair for most elite sports stars. The stubbornness and single-mindedness that helped Federer confound everyone before can’t be just switched off. That cussed competitiveness is rooted in flesh and blood instinct rather than ideas of fairytale rides into the sunset.

The temptation for any top sportsperson is to hang on in the hope of one final glorious affirmation of what made them the best, get a swansong to reckon with.

Federer is unlikely to vault the net and loaf Djokovic anytime soon.

It's a dilemma not unique to Federer. Serena Williams is still trying to equal Margaret Court's Grand Slam record despite her body betraying her. Every logical calculation is that Andy Murray can't return to the level when he was world No 1. Rafael Nadal's knees must have cottage cheese for cartilage at this point. Yet they persevere in pursuit of some unlikely perfect ending.

The problem is sport for all its sentiment rarely supplies such a neat Hollywood-style denouement.

Maybe the most evocative example remains Zinedine Zidane’s epic exit at the 2006 World Cup final. A rare football artist entitled to be compared aesthetically to Federer somehow dragged France to a final. And then he lost the plot with an act of such startling impetuosity and self-indulgence that it still drips with pathos.

Phil Mickelson

Federer is unlikely to vault the net and loaf Djokovic anytime soon. Unlike team sport, his destiny is much more in his own hands. But that’s within limits too. References to Phil Mickelson winning golf’s US PGA at 50 as some sort of equivalent might sound encouraging but comparing the games is like comparing curling to hurling.

Maybe Federer is clinging to the dream of some Sampras-like last hurrah at the 2002 US Open. The American secured a then record 14th Slam and never picked up a racket in anger again. He was 31. Steffi Graf was a year younger when calling it quits. Tennis traditionally hasn't indulged much champions in decline which is possibly at the root of the rush to retire Federer now.

In many ways expressing concern about tarnishing his legacy is a selfish impulse. It revolves around not wanting to watch someone who was the best not quite operating at that best anymore. We don’t want the vivid impressions of him somehow seeming to glide over the court to be interfered with.

But if the man himself is OK with that it takes some hubris to argue with him. Federer loves the game. That in itself is pretty remarkable considering the length of his career and the demands involved. By all accounts he is anything but jaded about the tour. And more than anything he has surely earned the right to continue competing for as long as he wants.

Because his legacy is secure. John McEnroe retired eight years after his last singles Slam. No one remembers the late McEnore. He is forever embedded in the public consciousness as the scowling brat of his pomp. When Federer does quit the legacy he leaves will always be of peerless elegance and lightly worn sporting greatness. It won’t be picking at the scabs of the Hurckacz result.

Besides there’s no getting away from how he has form when it comes to confounding expectations. If there’s no point getting older unless you get a little wiser, then even the silliest amongst us might have learned by now to be a little more circumspect when it comes to delivering useless advice to great champions.

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