It is sometimes said of aging athletes, long-running TV shows, and performing artists of all stripes that it is better to go out on top. The implication is that the public does not want to witness the people and stuff it likes at anything less than full strength.
Yet is this really true? While there are surely some professions in which signs of advancing age are undeniably a liability — who wants to hear a soprano who can no longer hit the high notes or a stand-up comic who can no longer deliver punchlines? — there are others in which a curious kind of grace, an almost transcendent openness and vulnerability, accrues with the passage of time and the seeming diminution of abilities. After all, the lure of one more game, one more match, or one more time in the arena springs from one of the most human of all impulses: to stave off death, to bat it away, to not give it any quarter.
Let us remember the final days of the NFL career of Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre — not his last successful season, in 2009, but the following season, the almost entirely desultory 2010 campaign, when, for what became his final game, the then-Viking suited up in the bitter cold against the Bears and went five for seven for 63 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and one gigantic sack. Yet the numbers don’t tell even half of the story that night. With each trot to the line of scrimmage, we saw Favre straining to summon the wily athleticism that he could once muster so effortlessly. In Favre’s stubborn denial of reality, his touching confidence, or perhaps blind hope, that he could will himself to be better than he was at that point in his career, there is to be found greater poetry than in a hundred other athletes who glumly hang it up before they start to look bad.
There is something of the spirit of Favre at work in the still-waning years of the career of Swiss tennis superstar Roger Federer: Owing to a succession of knee injuries, and resulting surgeries, the 40-year-old athlete has for some time not quite been the same player who once amassed 20 Grand Slams. All the same, Federer has been reluctant to call it a career. Comebacks are routinely touted, and sometimes he delivers, as when he won the Australian Open in 2018, and sometimes he pulls up short, as when he made it no further than the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2021, but his attempt to wring every last ounce of athleticism, grit, and elegance out of his body is laudable in itself. Watching a player as graceful as Federer slowly disassemble, to be rendered incapable bit by bit of the feats that made him a beloved figure, has its own fascination. It’s a bit like watching an estate sale in which treasured objects are sold off and removed one at a time.
The tennis icon’s slow-motion march from center court is the ostensible subject of writer Geoff Dyer’s new book The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings. “So even when it looked like he would never win another Slam we were glad he kept playing, glad he didn’t subscribe to Borg’s zero-sum ideal of number one or bust, because it gave us a chance to see him,” Dyer writes in a passage that fully captures some of our wistfulness about the aging giant. “It was an illusion we could believe in.”
Of course, readers of Dyer’s earlier books, including the acclaimed D.H. Lawrence study Out of Sheer Rage, are sure to guess that this new book is no mere exegesis of the greatness of Federer. Instead, Dyer applies his notably free-form style, casually juxtaposing criticism, autobiography, and non sequitur, to the larger topic of “endings” — Federer’s anticipated ending, as well as the works produced by writers, musicians, and painters near the end of their productive lives.
In numbered sections, Dyer jumps from one variation on this theme to another. One section might explore the topic of retirement as a life goal in itself among the adults in his life when he was growing up (“It was a form of promotion, practically an ambition,” to retire), while another, a few pages later, dives into the peculiarity of an aging Bob Dylan’s continued commitment to touring (“It’s possible he enjoys it but if the stage is, as he claimed in 1997, ‘the only place where I’m happy,’ why then doesn’t he show it?”). Dyer’s style is as jagged as Federer’s serves are smooth, but the basic theme is strong enough, and Dyer’s voice is engaging enough, to keep the book consistently thought-provoking.
Dyer is clearly moved by the position of athletes and artists as they try to continue to ply their trades even as time marches on. He references the late paintings of J.M.W. Turner, who preferred an extreme amorphousness of style, “tangible objects such as castles, palazzi, people, even geographical features hazing into a glow and burst of light,” that was once perceived as an indication of the artist’s decline but was, as Dyer explains, something of a road map for the impressionists. By the same token, an Alzheimer’s disease-afflicted Willem de Kooning is said to have churned out a spate of late paintings that were not quite his own. “Assistants would project drawings onto canvas for him to paint over and around,” Dyer notes.
There is something cozy and appealing about Dyer’s attentiveness to last things. He rattles off works of art whose titles refer to the last of something, from Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and refers to our fascination with those last periods of happiness or joy just prior to some cataclysm: He writes of the summer of 1914, for example, as a respite before “the entire world shifted on its axis.” The cinematic subgenre in which criminals commit “one final heist” is considered, with Michael Mann’s Heat offered as an illustrative example. Before Dyer even gets to Federer, or to tennis itself, he talks about the Doors’s song “The End,” which, of course, appeared on the band’s first album. We’re a nostalgic species, it seems.
Peter Tonguette is a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.