Today, I almost tweeted a rather obvious (and therefore lame) joke about the retiring tennis star. Something like, “Federer is 41, poor ol’ fella…”
But then, aside from shying away from the obvious, I decided it was also wrong. In a way, Roger sort of is a poor old fellow.
His entire life, as short as it’s been, has been about being one of the best tennis players in the world — perhaps the best. His body, his mind, his spirit have all been entirely focused on that goal. And now, for the rest of his life — which will quite probably be most of his life — will lack that. Whatever he does next, it will lack that intense drive, that satisfaction.
So while he rightly claims his triumphs, he ends on a rueful note in this statement:
“I am 41 years old; I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years,” Federer said in an audio clip posted on social media. “Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamed, and now I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career.”
So I do feel a little bad for him.
Of course, he’s luckier than football and, to a lesser extent, baseball players. His is a sport he can still enjoy for the rest of his active life. He can beat the pants off everybody in his neighborhood, and relax doing it.
But it won’t be the same.
A corollary, a little different from what I was saying above about Federer: Suppose he is really successful at his next career, if he has one. Like my wife’s first cousin, Tim McCarver. I haven’t talked to him in decades, but I don’t think he was filled with a sense of loss through all those years of live television — it would have shown, to the whole world. And he was very successful at it, winning three Emmys.
But because he was so successful, there’s something a bit disorienting to someone like me who is old enough to remember his glory days on the field. Look at how Wikipedia describes him now, at the age of almost 81: “James Timothy McCarver (born October 16, 1941) is an American sportscaster and former professional baseball catcher.”
The “sportscaster” comes first, and the “professional baseball catcher” comes next — with a former in front of it! This despite the fact that he was one of only 29 players to appear in MLB games in four different decades — having come up to the bigs in 1959, when he was only 17, and retired in 1980.
Yeah, he spent twice as much time as a sportscaster, but hey — to me, those were short years. When you’re a kid, years are much more than twice as long. And when I first saw him play in person in 1969 when he was with the Cardinals, it seemed he’d been a star ballplayer forever.
So I find myself wondering: When Federer is 81, what will people say he was? I don’t know, but when I’m that age, if I ever am that age, I’ll think of him as a tennis player. A great one…