Tennis fans have a range of opinions on Roger Federer’s chances to win the 2013 Wimbledon title. Most of the reticence in considering him the favorite, despite his history as arguably the greatest grass-court player of all time, is because he is 31 years old.
He is the defending Wimbledon champion and No. 3 player in the world. But media vultures hover around his results, predicting when and how the final sands of his legacy will trickle through his career hourglass.
Imagine if your community scrutinized your performance at a desk job, one day applauding your past efforts but the next day cleaning out your desk and calling a hearse. They smile and pay tribute to what you once accomplished, all the while doubting if you can still do your job.
For Federer, the foreboding chatter is mostly irrelevant to his own outlook on winning an eighth Wimbledon championship.
Outliers in Sports and Life
Professional athletes are wired differently from “regular people.” Their sport is their life. They have exponentially lapped the Malcolm Gladwell principle that demands a minimum of 10,000 hours to be great in any chosen field or endeavor. They train and live in another reality, always chasing one more ultimate victory.
A few of these very special athletes, like Federer, understand that nothing else they do in life will simulate the thrills and highs they have earned in their own careers. This is who they are and why they do not seek some “normal life” retirement. To this end, they may not cope well.
The late David Halberstam illustrated this through an anecdote about journeyman professional basketball player Jim Brewer in The Breaks of the Game. Brewer discussed the difficulties of his career ending, hanging around the house and not doing the list of things he was supposed to do. On page 189, Brewer showed the difficulty in losing his athletic life:
The hard part is after the last game. That’s when you need the attention the most and then suddenly it’s not there... I sat around the house trying to figure out what went wrong, and waiting for someone to phone and give me another piece of my life.
For superstar athletes, there is an instinctive need to do more than hold on to their careers. They have created a livelihood of winning championships and being the absolute best.
This trumps even the pressure-free ease of retiring and showing up at a Grand Slam venue in a dark suit and shades to muse over the next generation of tennis.
Legends Play On
Sports journalists misunderstand aging superstars’ supposedly fatal optimism to keep winning.
These historians warn that it would be better not to be an aging Willie Mays tripping over his feet in center field. They remind us that Muhammad Ali could no longer get up from his corner stool to continue boxing against young Larry Holmes. They shake their heads at the disapproving memory of Michael Jordan pulling on a Washington Wizards uniform.
What if this were to happen to Federer? Maybe it was okay for Mats Wilander to end his career as a journeyman, but Federer? Is it worth eventual and certain failure for one lottery-like chance at recaptured glory?
In a word, yes.
Even Jack Nicklaus, who at age 65 was taking farewell tours at the U.S. Open and British Open, made it clear he was there to win those tournaments. It’s the uncompromising position of the truly great champions.
More importantly, Federer is far away from hanging up his racket. He is one of the favorites at Wimbledon and has every belief that he will win it again.
Federer’s competitive mindset is to be the best player in the world. According to New York Magazine, Federer despised dropping to No. 2 in 2008: “I just don’t like the ring of it when I’m being introduced on Centre Court saying, ‘and this is the No. 2 in the world.’ It just sounds wrong. Either I’m No. 1 or I’m a Grand Slam champion, but I’m not No. 2.”
Five years may age his body, but it will not deter his inner belief.
Federer's Optimistic Approach
Those special few champions have incredible optimism amidst everyone's doubts. Their confidence may fluctuate, but their ability to play on is their antidote to any career or personal setback. Injuries, decline and age are merely symptoms that can be cured with winning.
Federer’s optimism leads him to believe he will win more Grand Slam titles and compete at the 2016 Olympics, according to Tennis.com. He’s not going through the motions of a retirement tour.
He knows he can win Wimbledon because he has had a history of success. It gives him an aura that others fear, which drives his confidence. Nobody handles the opening rounds with greater focus than Federer. From there, he continues to duel his younger rivals.
Federer envisions how to succeed. Is there any player better prepared to train, rest and execute his game plan at SW19? He knows the grass and what shots he can hit. He is the consummate thinker and adapter to his opponents' styles and tendencies. Hit more slice to Djokovic; strike forehand winners against Murray early in the point; force Nadal away from his grinding patterns.
There is also his personal challenge to be the best. Last year, after winning Wimbledon, Federer had to feel great in getting back his No. 1 ranking. He knows the field is tougher and younger than it once was, but this is another opportunity he wishes to have. He is a competitor.
Federer wants another trophy and another numeral to wear on his sneakers and jackets. He wants to savor the applause and soak up the feeling of ultimate victory one more time. As he said in New York Magazine:
I think everyone likes to be popular. I always play on Centre Court. They never bump me … All these things are something I’ve worked so hard for and to now say, ‘Okay, that’s fine, I’ve had enough,’ walk away, it’s so hard, because I love it so much.
After his Wimbledon win last year, Federer told the Daily Mail, “But I'm so happy I'm at the age I am right now, because I had such a great run and I know there's still more possible.”
There is a tough road ahead, and he will face others who also share this dream. Just understand that this next opportunity is the one he wants the most. While the rest of us weigh his odds or discuss his difficulties, Federer believes he will win Wimbledon.