The parallels are striking.
Roger Federer is walking down a path all to familiar to Bjorn Borg.
Federer, like Borg, has achieved his successes in a relatively short period of time. Six years to Borg’s eight.
Federer dictates matches from the baseline, a tactic perfected by Borg.
Both sat atop of the world and exerted dominance for many years.
Both met their demise in the form of a left-hander on the storied grass courts of the All England Club.
Bjorn Borg shocked the tennis world by leaving the game at 26.
He walked away still at the top of the game.
Federer, like Borg after the 1981 defeat to John McEnroe at Wimbledon, is at the crossroads of his career. His skills still good enough to be in the hunt for Slams, but no longer a certainty to be in the final.
Federer is suffering from what I will term “Post-Prime Depression.”
The symptoms include a bruised ego, growing awareness that the top spot in the ranking will never belong to you again, and a fear of the inevitable—that retirement looms much closer than once thought.
Sure, Federer can go on and play into his 30’s. There is no shame in that.
Andre Agassi did it.
But then again, Agassi was making up for time lost. Trying to write a great ending to a story that was marred with a troubled beginning.
That is not Federer.
Federer does not have to make up for time lost or opportunities missed.
What he does have to do is keep a legacy intact that he has fought so hard to build.
A legacy that dwindles with every quarterfinal exit and now every racquet smashed.
When faced with the inevitability Federer is now faced with, Borg walked away. Left a game he dominated for so long while still near the top.
Therein lies the problem. “Near the top” was not good enough for Borg. It is certainly not good enough for Federer.
Walking away would add mystique to the Federer legacy as it did for Borg.
It makes it seem as if he walked away on his own terms something that lends itself to legacy saving. Pete Sampras did the same.
Sampras walked away after claiming his 14th Slam at the U.S. Open, making almost everyone forget that in the preceding two years Sampras had not won a single tournament.
It gave his legacy the perception that he went out on top.
Federer can do the same thing.
The extreme best-case scenario would be winning the French Open and then announcing retirement.
This seems unlikely given Rafael Nadal’s dominance on clay.
The next best scenario would be winning at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open and then announcing his retirement.
Given the last few months, this would seem to be a very hard task.
Federer has now shown vulnerability to the top 4 players in the world and would inevitably have to play at least two of them to win a final.
The least of the positive scenarios would see Federer play out the rest of the year respectfully and retire at years end. He announces that he is a father and would like to raise his child and goes out the champion that he is.
The absolute worst-case scenario would have Federer playing for another five to six years.
The effects could be catastrophic for Federer.
Other than the French Open, Federer has nothing left to prove. By extending his career into his 30s he is taking the chance of losing the luster off his legendary career. Lest we forget that only 10 of the 115 grand slam winners have won a slam after becoming a father.
Not to mention, it is almost inevitable that he will lose more matches to Nadal. Every time he drops a match to his rival, he is hounded by questions of his status as the greatest player of all time.
This is something that troubles Roger, it is a title he holds close to his heart.
The questions are legitimate.
How can you be the greatest player of all time if you cannot consistently beat your greatest rival?
Walking away near the top would silence those critics. It would be as if Roger is saying “I have nothing to prove to anyone.”
Borg did it.
Maybe Federer should consider it.
The parallels are striking.