Letting Go: How Do Idols Say Good-Bye?

What can one say about a tennis player at the end of his career who loses to an inferior player on the sport’s biggest stage? Are you thinking of Roger Federer and his quarter-final loss to Hubert Hurkacz at this year’s Wimbledon? Are you still shocked at Roger’s losing in straight sets at his favorite tournament with a bagel (6-0) in the third set?

Try thinking June 26, 2002. Thirteen time Grand Slam Champion and seven time Wimbledon champ Pete Sampras fell to Swiss journeyman George Bastl in the second round of The Championships. Fifteen years later, Sampras confided to a French sports publication that it was his worst nightmare, and that he had never fully digested his improbable defeat. “I was lost,” Sampras admitted. “I felt terribly alone.”

Bastl, son of a Villars-Sur-Ollon tennis pro, was ranked 145 in the world at the time. While he had had some success as a college player at the University of Southern California, he had won only two matches in previous Grand Slams. And he had not even passed the Wimbledon qualifications; he entered the main draw as a lucky loser through a default by a qualifier.

End of Sampras’ career? The final match for the popular California native whose aggressive serve and volley game dominated tennis for much of the 1990s? Boris Becker, the German three-time Wimbledon champion and television commentator predicted it would be Sampras’s last appearance on that hallowed ground.

Fast forward to the US Open later that year. Most experts thought Sampras had no chance, that the 31 year-old was a step slower. “It was what everybody was thinking, that he was a step and a half slow,” said fellow pro Greg Rusedskiten years later. After all, the former world number 1 was ranked only 17 at the time.

Sampras surprised everyone by winning the tournament, defeating Andre Agassi in the last all-American final of a Grand Slam. It was also Sampras’ last professional tournament. Although he didn’t announce his retirement until a year later, Sampras’ career was over with his 14th Slam title, the record at the time.

Does this relate to Federer? His straight set 6-0 third set defeat to Hurkacz was a crushing blow. Hadn’t he said he was priming for Wimbledon after his knee operations? Was this his last appearance on Centre Court? The last match of a storied career with 20 Slam titles?

How will Roger end his playing career? The Sampras story is relevant to Federer because Pete went out with a bang. What better way to end a career than winning the biggest title in his home country? In his hospital bed after his two knee operations, did Roger dream of one last hurrah, a ninth Wimbledon title and 21st Grand Slam? Certainly he didn’t imagine meekly waving to the crowd after a humiliating defeat. If Sampras still recalls the Bastl match as the low point of his career, will Roger ever forget or overcome that last set?

How sports stars end careers is not simple. For some, it is easier than for others. A basketball player such as Kobe Bryant announces he is playing his last season and each game becomes a farewell; opponents and their cities pay tribute to him and each game is an orchestrated good-bye. To top it off, Bryant scored 60 points to help his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, win in his last game before retirement.

Not all farewells are joyous. Baseball fans will recall Lou Gehrig’s farewell and farewell speech, undoubtedly the most famous ceremony in baseball history. Gehrig, a native New Yorker and star for the New York Yankees in the 1930s, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had set the all-time baseball record by appearing in 2130 consecutive games – he was nicknamed the Iron Horse – , was a seven-time All Star and six-time World Series champion.

Gehrig’s farewell speech was given at Yankee Stadium before 62,000 adoring fans on July 4, 1939, two weeks after the awful diagnosis. Faced with a progressive, fatal, neurogenerative disease, Gehrig calmly said: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

What courage. What a farewell. In a moment when he knew the terrible future he was facing, Gehrig was able to say “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

What about Roger? What will be his farewell? For the moment, he has said nothing about retirement. He has withdrawn from the Tokyo Olympics (July 24 – August 8) but said he has “hopes of returning to the tour later this summer.” There is only so much he can control. Sampras’ last match was ideal. Bryant helped his team to a final victory. Both went out on a high note. Gehrig’s speech still resonates for its courage and humility. Roger Federer is an idol. How do idols say good-bye?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.