The ‘R’ word – what sportsmen dread

As the end nears, sportsmen have to deal with the same question asked in different ways: “Are you ready to retire?”

Watching Roger Federer walk off the Rod Laver arena one last time (perhaps!) was heartbreaking. It is always that way when a hero fades into history.   -  AFP

Champions learn to keep their faces expressionless as they walk off the arena for the last time, or continue playing knowing the end is near. But they give themselves away in small ways — the exaggerated motions suggesting it is just another day in the office, the profound concentration in putting their things together as they walk off court or the fixed smile they wear hoping it indicates all is well. For many sportsmen, the ‘R’ word is the most dreaded.

Watching Roger Federer walk off the Rod Laver arena one last time (perhaps!) was heart-breaking. It is always that way when a hero fades into history. The long-drawn fade only makes it worse. You suffer with your hero, just as you exulted with him in the good times. His triumphs were yours, and so too his disappointments. As ‘R-Day’ approaches, you hope it will be painless both for you and your hero. In sport as in movies and novels, no one likes a messy ending.

Unlike the hero who suffers and then is gone, we suffer over and over again as various heroes retire. Muhammad Ali, my first great non-cricketing hero, hung on that bit too long thanks to his handlers, his entourage and sponsors. He lost his final bout to Trevor Berbick when good sense and medical advice suggested that he should have called it a day three years earlier when he regained his world title in the Leon Spinks fight.

It was a good example of what the poet Dylan Thomas called raging against the dying of the light, but in the case of sportsmen and especially boxers, that is not a good idea.

When a great sportsman quits, a part of his fans goes with him, too. When Sachin Tendulkar called it a day, the media was full of stories of how fans measured time and progress in their own lives by his achievements on the field. “Finished school the year he made his first fifty...got married when he made a century in Sharjah...” and so on. For so long had Sachin been in the collective consciousness that he had become the universal clock by which a generation told time. As the end nears, sportsmen have to deal with the same question asked in different ways: “Are you ready to retire?” The answer is usually something along the lines of, “I am enjoying myself. When I stop enjoying myself, I will call it a day” or “I will sit down with my family and my team…” Perhaps there will be one final triumph. And if there is, then retirement might be seen as premature. Then the cycle of hope and disappointment begins afresh.

“The question isn’t at what age I want to retire,” said George Foreman, who was still boxing at 48, “it’s at what income.” When Bjorn Borg retired at 26, he wanted to do “other things in life.” Motivation is the key. Borg lost it early. Tendulkar had it always. Federer still does.