The most painful thing for a champion is to realize that someone else has passed you by.
The most difficult thing for a champion is to try to change your game. After all, you became the best playing this way. Change what works? No, the hubris of having become the best almost demands that you stay the course. Or you quit.
And so we have ... Roger Federer.
It was hardly but a year or so ago when the only question was whether he was the greatest tennis player of all time. And there was no argument whatsoever that his game was the loveliest, ever. But now — now it seems that he might not even be the best of his own era.
How quickly it has happened. How bizarre. Federer is, after all, still ranked second in the world. It was only this past September that he won his 13th Grand Slam tournament. He's been in 14 of the last 15 major finals. That's unworldly. No, he's not a tragic figure. Away from the court, he appears level, attractive — and happy — a newlywed, with a baby on the way. He's rich and healthy. Even, it seems, rather quite a normal human being.
And yet, now he is demonized. Federer could not beat Rafael Nadal on clay in the French. Then, at Wimbledon last summer, Nadal beat Federer on grass. And at the Australian this winter, Nadal overpowered him on hard court. And suddenly, Federer didn't own a court anymore, anywhere. Who had ever seen a champion lose his world so visibly, so sorrowfully, as he did in Melbourne. The tears flowed, as Nadal tried to console him. "God, it's killing me," Federer moaned, turning away from the microphone.
Looking back, it's almost eerily the same as what happened to Bjorn Borg. Borg dominated the game as much in the late 1970s as Federer did these past few years. Only, just as Federer cannot win the French on clay, Borg could not win the U.S. on hard court.
And when John McEnroe took Centre Court at Wimbledon away from Borg and then beat him once again in New York, Borg had to walk away from the game, only 26 years old. He was still great, but someone had solved him. And, well, that was killing him.
Everybody has advice for Federer. Get a coach, Roger. Use a larger racket. Whatever. Change. Do something new, Roger. Do something different. But maybe it's hardest for him to adjust because he knows what everyone tells him, that he is the most beautiful tennis player who ever lived.
And then, Sunday, in Madrid, in the last tuneup for the French Open, Federer beat Nadal. On clay, straight sets. Now granted, Nadal's right knee is injured, and he was worn down from a grueling semifinal. Is it possible, though, that this one victory in one minor tournament can restore Federer's confidence?
Power, you see, rules almost every sport today. It is all that is stylish. Nadal is power. Beauty is now but a bagatelle. How do you get prettier when you are already the fairest of them all, and that doesn't anymore seem to be enough?
Commentator Frank Deford weighs in from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.