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There is only one sport where a player can still be in the top fraction of the top one percent in the world and be asked every day when they’re going to retire. There is only one sport where a result that would be considered excellent for nearly every one of their peers becomes cause for a meltdown.
But when you look at where tennis has been for the last two amazing decades and where it’s headed once Roger Federer and Serena Williams eventually exit, the sport is going to regret the ubiquitous notion that it was time for them to go just because they stopped winning Grand Slams.
Of all the sports that have become infected by ringggzzzz culture — this idea that the only worthwhile part of sports is winning championships — tennis has by far become the worst. And it’s almost certainly going to lead to this generation of champions leaving while they still have something — even if it’s not their best — left to give.
There’s no way to spin the 39-year old Federer’s 6-3, 7-6, 6-0 loss to Hubert Hurkacz in Wednesday’s Wimbledon quarterfinal as anything other than an ominous sign for his chances of winning a 21st Grand Slam title. Williams, whether it’s her inconsistent tennis or injury issues, seems further away from adding her long-sought 24th Slam now than she was a year ago. Even Rafael Nadal started to look a bit old and tired in his French Open semifinal loss last month to Novak Djokovic, and after a comprehensive third-round Wimbledon loss, it seems like the ceiling for Andy Murray’s comeback from hip surgery is well below what it takes to win one of these.
Every tennis great has to decide whether the training and effort it takes to compete at the highest level is worth it for them when the reward is no longer winning the biggest titles. It’s totally understandable if these players, who have long passed the point of grinding like this for money or legacy, just say enough’s enough.
But we don’t need to collectively push them out the door just because they’re going to have days like Federer where he can’t keep the forehand in the court against a top-20 player who is 15 years younger.
“I definitely need to be a better player if want to be more competitive at the highest of levels,” a downtrodden Federer said. “I knew that coming in. Better players remind you of that like Hurkacz.”
Federer didn’t commit to much of anything in the immediate aftermath of the quarterfinal loss, just like Williams has completely dodged questions after the Australian Open and the French Open about whether she had made her last appearances on those courts. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if both of them simply said goodbye at the end of this season.
But this is where tennis fails miserably in putting its legends into proper perspective.
Just to get to the quarterfinals, Federer got through the 41st-ranked player in the world in Adrian Mannarino and the No. 56 in Richard Gasquet before completely taking apart No. 34 Cameron Norrie and No. 27 Lorenzo Sonego. It’s also worth noting that he got to the fourth round at the French Open before pulling out as a precautionary measure for his still-recovering knee. To do that just shy of 40 years old, having come off of two knee surgeries last year, is a remarkable testament to his talent and the fact that he can still beat really good players week in and week out.
Ask yourself: Is tennis better or worse for Federer continuing to do that, even if it means he’ll throw in a dud now and then or run into a brick wall at the later stages of a Grand Slam?
Tennis has long been a sport where the mentality is to get out as soon as you’re not viable anymore in the biggest events. In the era right before Federer and Williams began to dominate, you saw Pete Sampras get out at 31, Stefan Edberg play his last Grand Slam at age 30 and Steffi Graf call it a career at 30. They didn’t wait once things started to decline.
Granted, tennis isn’t like other sports. You can’t transition into a different role coming off the bench or become a backup quarterback when you get older.
But you would have never heard anyone — particularly those who run tournaments and have to market the game — calling for Phil Mickelson to stop playing the PGA Tour because he went through a couple year stretch where he didn’t contend in any tournaments. If and when Tiger Woods comes ever back from the injuries he sustained in his February car accident, you won’t find people suggesting he shouldn’t play if he shoots a bunch of 75s.
The mentality in tennis needs to change. There’s more to the sport than just the Grand Slams, and there should be value in seeing great players compete even if they’re no longer physically able to be the best in the world.
Even in his older form, there aren’t many better tennis players in the world than Federer. He’s still capable of beautiful strokes, entertaining rallies and incredible artistry on the court, and he can still beat most of the top guys. Williams was just in a Grand Slam semifinal in January. As bleak as it looked for Murray against Denis Shapovalov at Wimbledon, he played a brilliant match in the first round against No. 28 Nikoloz Basilashvili. They’re not as good as they’ve been, but they’re still better at this sport than everybody in the world except a few handful of people.
Think about that for a second when we try to push them into retirement.
As we come face-to-face with the reality that these great players of tennis’ golden era are more mortal than they’ve been, the goal should be to see them play as much as they’ll allow us. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Wimbledon or Delray Beach, Florida. They don’t need to win Grand Slams to make it worthwhile. They just need to keep showing up.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tennis will regret pushing Roger Federer, Serena Williams to retire