You could call it the Feste Conundrum, after the minstrel whose serenades supply a running commentary in Twelfth Night. "In delay there lies no plenty. Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth's a stuff will not endure."
As we approach midsummer day some gilded careers have acquired an autumnal hue. Sportsmen who have coloured our summers in recent years are now painting with paler tints. The will is still there, but their mastery must be taken on trust.
Tiger Woods is no longer sweet and twenty. He's a rapidly ageing 35, nursing an injury to his left knee that has obliged him to miss this week's US Open at Congressional in Maryland, and still so battered by the travails of a private life which became embarrassingly public that his utterances oscillate between lamb-like contrition and bear-like growls.
Neither is Roger Federer in the first flush of youth. At 29 the greatest, and certainly the most graceful tennis player ever to have picked up a racket is hoping to win a seventh title at Wimbledon, knowing that the race goes increasingly to younger men. Were it possible to win matches through beauty alone he would never have dropped a set, but time's winged chariot makes a merciless umpire.
Then there is Kevin Pietersen, who was once twenty but never sweet. The England batsman, a fortnight short of his 31st birthday, returns to Southampton next week for the final Test of the series against Sri Lanka. He cannot expect to receivea warm reception, and the locals will not disappoint him. Last year Pietersen pulled stumps on his career with Hampshire, offering the lamest of excuses: "I live in Chelsea."
The sands are shifting, as all sportsmen fear. Woods, who has won 14 major tournaments, will never remain a truly competitive force so long as his knee refuses to let him swivel. Federer, the holder of 16 Grand Slam titles, used to own Centre Court at Wimbledon. Now he looks over his shoulder, feeling older, knowing that all things must pass.
Pietersen... well, who knows what Pietersen thinks? Since becoming the fastest man to 5,000 Test runs in months, not matches, his batting has diminished to such an extent that the last two years have brought only one century, a double against Australia last winter. His talent is waning when it should wax. A half-century at Lord's last week fooled nobody.
Federer and Woods are two monuments, Pietersen an extremely gifted opportunist. Yet time will have his fancy, tomorrow or today. Tomorrow, we must hope, in the case of the great Swiss, for when Federer departs the stage we shall never again see the like. If Woods stands a cubit lower it is only because his public manner is less sympathetic. The extraordinary outpouring of affection for Seve Ballesteros showed that, where golf followers were concerned, the Spaniard was a man apart. Woods remains a player apart, which is a very different thing. People loved Ballesteros. They respect Woods. But great champions do not have to be charmers.
Pietersen, being a team player, has been shaped by other forces. At least the transplanted South African is nominally a team player. In actualityhis career has suggested that he is temperamentally unsuited to the demands of a communal dressing room. He left Natal under a cloud, came to England in search of commercial opportunities that he has exploited, and yet, at Notting-hamshire and then Hampshire, he has never found true acceptance.
Not since Geoffrey Boycott has an England cricketer ("English" doesn't sound right in this instance) been so unloved by the people he plays with. That won't bother Pietersen, because he has no sense of allegiance. It is entirely fitting that his current county is Surrey as the famous dogs' home in the parish next to The Oval takes in stray hounds.
When are the best years for a sportsman? In Federer's game they are behind him. Every victory now is an act of will. Woods, meanwhile, can look towards Jack Nicklaus as an example, as he tries to match his great predecessor's 18 major titles. Nicklaus was 46 when he won the last of those titles, at Augusta in 1986. So long as there is wick in the lamp he must think, "I have a chance."
Ryan Giggs, a champion again with Manchester United at the age of 37, offers living proof that a healthy body can reel in the years, although he will no doubt have other matters on his mind right now. But the greatest modern achievement surely belongs to Sachin Tendulkar, whose batting, already formidable, has improved in the last couple of years.
Whereas Giggs has been a great servant of his club, rather than a great footballer, Tendulkar has been indisputably great, more or less from the start, which in his case brought a Test debut at the age of 16. Now, 22 years later, having played more Tests (177) and made more runs in them (the little matter of 14,692) than any batsman in history, and with 99 centuries in all international cricket, he sits among the immortals.
At this rate it almost seems possible that Tendulkar will be playing first-class cricket at the age of 50, when Sir Stanley Matthews finally called time on his career, in 1965.
More than Woods, more than Federer, Tendulkar is the sporting phenomenon of our age, so there is no excuse for missing him when the Indians come here next month. He has endured longer than anybody thought possible, but he will not pass this way again. Even so insatiable a run-gatherer will have to put his bat away some day.
How sport succumbed to the men who would be kings
1996 Former child prodigy Tiger Woods turns pro aged 20.
1997 Woods wins first major, The Masters with a record score of 18 under par.
1998 Roger Federer makes professional debut at the Swiss Open in Gstaad.
2000 Woods becomes youngest player to have won all the majors.
2001 Woods becomes first golfer to hold all four majors at same time.
2003 Federer wins Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam.
2004 Federer victorious at the US Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon.
2004/5 Kevin Pietersen makes England ODI debut during tour of Zimbabwe.
2005 Pietersen is included in England's Ashes winning team, finishing the series as top scorer with 473 runs.
2007 Federer matches Bjorn Borg's record of five consecutive Wimbledon triumphs. Pietersen becomes only the third English batsman to top ODI rankings.
2008 Federer wins an Olympic gold medal in doubles. Woods wins his 14th major, the US Open, and looks destined to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. Pietersen takes on Test and ODI captaincy.
2009 Pietersen resigns as captain after dispute with coach Peter Moores. Federer finally wins French Open after three successive final defeats, and also wins sixth Wimbledon. Woods crashes car outside his family home in Florida and news breaks of affairs. Sponsorship pulled by Gillette, Accenture and General Motors
2010 Federer wins record 16th Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January, but later in year fails to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time in five years and slips to world No 3. Pietersen is left out of the limited-overs squad to face Pakistan due to a lack of form but hits career best 227 against Australia at the end of the year, after going nearly two years without a Test century. Woods loses world No 1 ranking to Lee Westwood, confesses to 120 affairs and is formally divorced by his wife at a reported cost of $100m.
2011 Woods drops to No 12 in world rankings, and has been on 19-month winless streak. Recently pulled out of US Open due to injury. Pietersen's place in the team remains under threat after averaging only 28.25 in Tests for the year so far. Federer swept aside by Rafael Nadal in French Open final for the fourth time.Reuse content