Roger Federer and The Retirement Question – A Nietzschean Interpretation
In terms of recent tennis history, Wimbledon 2008 represents a disruptive and pivotal event. The more poetic Fed fans might use imagery of light and darkness, and view the outcome of the men’s final as the point at which the rays of the long evening sun finally set, to be replaced not by a new dawn but by a different and fractured sky. The golden age of Federer’s reign had finally been extinguished.
Since that time, the question of Fed retiring has been raised repeatedly (indeed, in light of his recent announcement that he will be skipping the remainder of the 2016 season, this question has raised its ugly head once again in social media posts etc.). Loyal Fed fans have consistently avowed support for their hero, saying that Fed will retire when he wants to, or – more extreme – that they want him to never retire, or to at least play until the 2048 Olympics. Other fans have been less committed and have themselves expressed their belief that Fed ought to retire or, worse, have gone over to the Dark Side in support of a new world number 1. But the question I wish to explore in this short article is why the Retirement Question has been cast over Fed’s career in a way in which it hasn’t (as far as I know) over other top ATP players.
There might be some relatively straightforward explanations for this. For example, some people might have uncritically accepted the (former) norm for the age at which tennis players generally finished their careers, and might have seen 26 years old as a respectable age to hang up the Wilson wand when Federer’s career appeared to have passed its peak. But I believe that there are also more profound explanations at work. As such, I will now set out two general theories, both of which draw on ideas set out by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
Theory I – Ressentiment
In his book, On The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche sets out a psychological mechanism that he calls ‘ressentiment’, which translates into ‘resentment’ in English, but which has a rather special meaning. On his definition, ressentiment is a feeling experienced by those who are not life’s winners and who suffer, in some sense, as a result. However, ressentiment is not reducible to a feeling of antipathy towards the life circumstances in which one finds oneself; it is not merely self-absorbed pity for one’s misfortunes and a desire for things to be different. Rather – and this is a crucial point – it also includes a target: a person or a group of people towards whom the sufferer can channel his frustrations, and whom he can hold responsible for his unfortunate condition. In our society, politicians are clearly key targets, but they are far from being the only targets.
This idea that the sufferer holds the target responsible for his plight suggests that ressentiment is not reducible to common jealousy. Moreover, Nietzsche maintains that ressentiment also includes a desire for some form of revenge. Under the orbit of this psychological mechanism, the poor do not merely covet the rich, but wish to possess and redistribute their wealth. The talentless aren’t merely jealous of the talented, but desire to see that talent and good fortune extinguished and their own condition ameliorated as a result.
In terms of tennis, Federer’s dominant years made him and his fans outright winners by a country mile but, conversely, left his opponents and their fans in a state of near-perpetual disappointment. Whilst Fed fans basked in their hero’s triumphs and glory, other fans were left in a sorry state for which they could hold the Swiss directly responsible (given the average fan’s reluctance to blame her own player for her let-downs). I certainly do not wish to claim that all fans of losing players generated feelings of ill will towards Federer and his self-satisfied followers. However, as the brightest star in the tennis galaxy, Fed was (and arguably still is) the most obvious target of feelings of ressentiment. Those harbouring these feelings might not be conscious of them or of the mechanism that is generating them, but that awareness is not necessary. What is necessary, however, is a justification to express those feelings. For, calling for Fed’s retirement during his dominant years would have appeared bizarre and would have been met with incredulity. There would have been no strong justification for making them. But with the Wimbledon final of 2008 serving as a pivotal moment, where a new tennis order came into being, an opening appeared for people to call for Fed’s exit from the courts on which, in the front or back of their minds, he had unfairly attained too much glory and caused them too much hurt. If he were to retire as they demanded, this would prevent him from attaining even further success, and would give their man a chance to win the big trophies, thereby enabling them to enjoy their moment in the sun.
Theory II – Apollonianism
The second general theory I will put forward to explain the prevalence of the Retirement Question is antithetical to the theory of ressentiment. For if the latter represents a form of ill-wishing, the theory of Apollonianism represents, in a sense, a form of well-wishing, but one which is primarily self-interested and which is not particularly psychologically healthy. This can be explained by briefly setting out a key idea in Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy.
According to Nietzsche, the world is not immediately acceptable to human beings – such are the hardships, miseries and evils that it presents to us – and so we have to make it acceptable to ourselves. He identifies three general strategies that human beings have devised to attain this goal: Apollonianism, Dionysianism, and Socratism. Dionysianism (which refers to the Greek god, Dionysus) represents an attempt to escape from the suffering of the world through intoxication and self-abandonment (alcohol, orgies, etc.). Socratism, which Nietzsche believes prevails in the modern world, posits the (unfounded) idea that there is a reason for everything, suffering included, which can act as a consolation for the experience of suffering and as a springboard to eliminate certain ills (science, technology). However, it is Apollonianism (which refers to the Greek god, Apollo) which is our main concern here.
Apollonianism represents an attempt to make the world acceptable by imagining a realm of perfect beauty. Religion provides an obvious example where the Apollonian is at play in its projection of a perfect realm (heaven) and in its claims that the world has been designed as a harmonious order (“All things bright and beautiful…The Lord God made them all”). Science, too, can invoke the Apollonian strategy in so far as it assumes, for non-rational reasons, that the cosmos is a rational, orderly and intelligible totality capable of being fully known and explained by the human mind. But the most obvious sphere in which Apollonianism takes hold is the sphere of art. The creation and experience of beautiful art, whilst of value in itself, is interpreted by Nietzsche as a means to enable us to feel at home in a world which is often experienced as senseless or (to misappropriate the words of Max Weber) as ‘not beautiful and not holy and not good’. In other words, art can be consoling.
Federer’s golden age from 2004 to 2007 represents something beautiful. Not only was his tennis style celebrated as a thing of beauty, but so, too, was his dominance. This was one of the greatest athletes of all time at the peak of his powers, who, seemingly effortlessly, tore through the record books. It would be hyperbolic to liken him to that mythical semi-god, Achilles, but the impulse to portray him and his achievements during this period in some sort of artistic form exists. Not everyone will possess this impulse, but setting out his achievements in the form of facts (e.g. stats), under the cold gaze of scientific reason, will not do. Art provides us with a medium to more fully and richly express and celebrate his achievements. Alongside the bestowing of honours on a person, art is the most appropriate medium for glorification.
Crucially, however, the impulse to employ the Apollonian strategy for Federer’s career can also lead people to call for his retirement. For, this beautiful, glorious period was destined to come to an end, and Wimbledon 2008 symbolised it. To put the matter metaphorically, the canvas created during that golden age was, at the end of that period, now vulnerable to degrading, just as (albeit for very different reasons) the picture of Dorian Gray grew ugly. Thus, for some, the call for Fed’s retirement, on this Nietzschean interpretation, represents not only an unwillingness to see that beauty fade and die but, more profoundly, it derives from a psychological need to preserve that beauty: to encase it, to lift it out of time, and to make it wholly invulnerable to degeneration (i.e. to immortalise it). In other words, in so far as Fed’s tennis was being used by them as a psychological strategy to reconcile themselves to a world which is not immediately acceptable, they were ill-prepared to watch that beauty fade.
Two related points are worth noting to end this section. Firstly, in so far as Fed’s tennis did (or, indeed, still does) represent a psychological crutch for a fan, the call for his retirement is dilemmatic, leaving the fan caught between the hope of witnessing future success and glory, on the one hand, and the fear of witnessing the decline of a champion, on the other. Secondly, this dilemma is far less acute for those fans who have other psychological strategies in place, besides Fed’s tennis, as a means to make the world acceptable to themselves. By implication, therefore, the greatest dilemma is reserved for those most ardent, monomaniac Fed obsessives for whom his tennis is their sole source of meaning and salvation from despair. They (I hope a tiny minority) are left in the unenviable position of needing his tennis to give their lives meaning, but being unable to cope with the inevitable decline of his game.
Since the end of Fed’s dominant reign, there have, and continue to be, calls for his retirement. People say that he’s too old and he’s passed his best. I can agree that Fed is passed his prime, but I find calls that he should therefore retire puzzling, particularly when one considers that he is still playing at a level that most ATP players could only dream of. I have therefore provided two possible philosophical explanations for these calls, one which points to a deep-seated feeling that Federer’s unprecedented successes are directly responsible for one’s own unhappiness and therefore need to be revenged (the ressentiment theory); and one which refers to a psychological need to not see his legacy tarnished or his beautiful game grow ugly (the Apollonian theory). Note that I’m not claiming that these two philosophical theories are explanatorily exhaustive. However, I am claiming that as long as Fed is in control of his decision-making, and as long as he can clearly evaluate his level of play, the opinions of others not close to him that he ought to retire are utterly worthless and ought to be treated as such.