The Last Word: Roger Federer, don’t tarnish the memories... bow out now

I want to remember Federer at his peak, not for having toppled off it

Roger Federer is hands down the best tennis player ever to grace a court and singularly the most polite and accommodating athlete I have ever interviewed. So I say this with a heavy heart, but he should retire.

I know there are those – they are many and include Tim Henman – who say that the greatest of them all has earned the right to determine the moment of his own departure from a sport he so utterly dominated.

But I cannot sit by quietly while the 17-time Grand Slam men’s singles champion, and my all-time sporting hero, insists on chipping away at his legacy by losing to a string of players who are simply not in his class.

I have been holding my tongue ever since his shock second round exit from Wimbledon this summer at the hands of Sergiy Stakhovsky, a rank outsider from Ukraine. I was at the All England Club that night and, as difficult as it was to accept, it tangibly felt like the end of an era.

But the 32-year-old Swiss immediately insisted he would be back and, my faith in his genius intact, I decided to let it pass. He knows best, right? Then he lost to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open and my confidence wavered.

His latest defeat – in three sets to Gaël Monfils at the Shanghai Masters this week – was the final straw. It leaves Federer struggling for a place in the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals, which he has won a record six times, and fans wondering if they really have seen the best of the best.

All the evidence – despite the caveat of a recent back injury – would suggest the answer is “yes” as he endures the worst season of his career since he first won Wimbledon a decade ago. So why won’t he call it a day?

He already has the most Grand Slam singles titles of any man – a record that is unlikely ever to be eclipsed, given the punishing toll the modern game takes of the human body. He has nothing left to prove.

I want to remember him at his peak and not for having toppled off it. Sadly, Federer is displaying all the symptoms of denial usually seen in a prizefighter seeking one last comeback.

In the week that Ricky Hatton released his candid autobiography, War and Peace: My Story, we should remember just how fine the line is between greatness and narcissism. It is barely a year since the former champion of two weight divisions made the disastrous decision to return to the ring after his defeat to Manny Pacquiao. Seeing the referee count him out after he was floored by a left hook from Vyacheslav Senchenko made for painful viewing. Had he retired before his last two fights, his win-loss record would have stood at 45-1.

Boxers (Rocky Marciano aside, who retired aged 32 undefeated after 49 fights) are the athletes most likely not to know when they’re cooked but other sports offer salutary tales of legends who refused to bow out in their prime.

Brett Favre, the star quarterback for the Green Bay Packers during a 15-year period and holder of numerous NFL records, became fodder for stand-up comedians over the “will-he-won’t-he” saga surrounding his future.

Speculation about his retirement dragged out over nine years until he finally collected his NFL pension in 2011. Even so, just last month, Favre’s agent, Bus Cook, said the 44-year-old was so fit he could play in the NFL today. Give it up already.

Jimmy Connors might have the Open era record of 110 singles tour titles but Bjorn Borg had it right. Go out on top when people are least expecting you to. It adds a mystery and allure that feeds legends: there is a perception of immortality if the live footage ends when the athlete in question is only 26 and still has a washboard stomach.

Brevity worked for Bobby Jones, who remains the only golfer to have completed the major grand slam in a single season despite signing his final competitive card at the age of 28. They made movies about him. I’ve not seen one about Fred Funk.

Maybe Federer has one last Wimbledon title in him. But the likelihood that he doesn’t is greater and that risks diminishing the magnificence of the seven he already has.

There is no debate here. Federer is the best. End of. He should end it before the memory is tarnished.

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