Is it possible for a tennis player to achieve 'legend' status and remain there? Or is a downfall part of the obligatory legend trajectory?
Pete Sampras was a beautiful champion. Focused, determined, and absolutely brilliant on the court, stringing together an amazing 14 grand slams.
An interesting fact that is rarely mentioned is that he did not win a single title between March 2000 and 2001, and the great champion retired in 2003 after winning the 2002 U.S. Open for the last time. A man who had been number one for six years deteriorated right before retirement.
Is this fate inevitable to all tennis champions?
There is a very real chance that Rafa will achieve the golden career slam. Australian Open? Check. Wimbledon? Check. Olympic gold medal? Check. French Open? Check, check, check, check. The only one left is the U.S. Open, which is looking much more doable for our champion than it has in the past. If he achieves the golden slam, he will be only one of two men (the other being Agassi) to hold that distinction.
Unfortunately, there may be a case of a lurking dark cloud to the obvious silver lining, so to speak. Much has been made about Rafa's body, and the toll that the "vamos" brand of tennis extracts from it. His speed and ferocity are some of his biggest weapons, and while his ferocity and competitiveness show every sign of staying, the same cannot be said for his speed.
Rafa's game is largely based on getting one more ball back into the court, and playing every point as if it were the only point that mattered. Even the most ardent Rafa-lites must admit that this is not a sustainable characteristic for the next 10 years.
This is truly a great time in men's tennis, and the fan is blessed to be witness to the talents of Rafa. He has climbed so high using tried and true principles of hard work, discipline, and lots of heart. As fans, we want to cheer him to the top, for the moment when he stands on the summit and plants his flag to let the world know that he has achieved the impossible, and reached the "top."
The problem with a mountain summit is that on the other side is a path leading down, down, down. Will Rafa be forced to follow this path? He has said that he thinks it is impossible to play at the level that he is playing for the next 10 years. He has stated that he cannot visualize playing much past 25 or 26 years of age due to the number of tournaments that must be played over the course of a year.
As fans, we can only hope that Rafa can use his determination to find a way to stay at the summit of Mt. Tennis. He has provided such wonderful entertainment that fans, by natural greed and awe, will not only want more but expect more from this champion.
Another case we can look to is that of the great Andre. This statesman played until he was 36, and is one of two men to have ever won a career grand slam. By the end of his career, Andre was spending many of his days in back pain; a mere shadow of his form in his winning days.
If Rafa were to use his determination and heart to stay in tennis until his 30s, would that taint the legend he has carved so far? Would his descent down Mt.Tennis obstruct us from remembering his ascent? What can be done to prevent these stains?
For that, perhaps we should remember that behind every great man is a great woman. The only person to win a golden career grand slam? The one and only Steffi Graf, who retired at the top of her mountain, and in the eyes of the world, never made the descent. Here's hoping that Rafa can hold on tightly to his flag.