OPINION - Serena Williams is living proof that going out on top is hugely overrated

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

There is something seductive about going out on top. Few things in sport are more shrouded in legend than the walk-off home run, the last-minute winner or the champion who retires undefeated. Always leave them wanting more, the thinking goes. Except, I’m almost certain this is horribly wrong.

From a fan’s perspective, I can see the appeal. The clarity of a record unsullied by the natural diminution of skills, physical and mental. A player in decline can still be great, but that’s hardly the point. They aren’t as good as they once were. And the direction of travel is pointing only one way.

In the summer of 2006, David Foster Wallace wrote the most famous piece of writing on Roger Federer, titled ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’. Wallace captured the man at the zenith of his powers, so far beyond the rest of the field that it was starting to look embarrassing.

But five years later, Brian Phillips penned the most perceptive piece on the Swiss, the subtitle of which was ‘The long autumn of Roger Federer.’ He was still great. That terrible, sad word, ‘still’. Sure, no one felt particularly good about it, but that wasn’t reason to call it quits.

Fast forward to today and the desire to retire is perhaps clearest in the greatest female tennis player of all time, Serena Williams. The American turns 41 next month, but has not won a major title since early 2017 (after which she took time off to have a child) and recently exited Wimbledon in the first round to the world number 115, Harmony Tan.

Williams is not as good as at her peak. Into her fifth decade, she is a step slower. Even the serve — by some distance the best shot in the history of women’s tennis — is not as reliable as it once was. But so what? She doesn’t get deducted a Grand Slam each time she loses before the third round. This isn’t a game show relying on ratcheting up the jeopardy to keep you watching.

The obsession with going out on top is based on a misunderstanding of what fandom is. The deal is that we live vicariously through them, not the other way around. Serena, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady — they’re not playing for us. If they want to keep going — for fun, for the competition or simply to trigger bonuses from endorsement deals — more power to them. It certainly makes no difference to their legacy.

Athletes aren’t politicians ending in failure. A first-round defeat is not a foreign policy debacle. Few remember Muhammad Ali’s late-career defeats to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. And even if they do, they scarcely outshine the Rumble in the Jungle or fights against Joe Frazier.

Sporting lives aren’t works of art that hang in museums. There is no ‘one stroke too many’. They are forged by mortals who are prone to decline. But that’s OK. Going out on top is overrated.

And you never know. They might just win one final fight.

In other news...

When it comes to writing a daily newsletter, I have no bias except for one: I am unashamedly pro-news. Ideally breaking at 3.30pm for my 4pm send time. So I was dismayed to learn last week that several thousand people resigned from the Government, and the PM belatedly promised to stand down, while I was on holiday.

I know, I know, there are few things more tedious than a journalist joking about how they chose a bad week to take off, as if the world revolves around them. But hear me out. There are days when, between friends, there isn’t always something breaking to report or hot new trend to draw out. That’s how your West End Final newsletter sometimes ends up reminiscing about the time Anchorage Airport was one of the most important transit hubs or opens by quoting Alice in Wonderland.

So please, no more coups, World Cups or viral Nigella moments when I’m away.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting