Michael Phelps, the Baltimore Bullet, came into the London Games with the same diminishing aura as Roger Federer before Wimbledon 2012. The Two living legends, the best in their sport already, had a similar barren patch of two years, after winning everything there was to win before that.
Lockerroom (world) rivalry
Phelps, slowly but surely, was becoming America’s second best swimmer after longtime competitor Ryan Lochte began to turn on the style in 2009, after changing his training regime. More importantly, in 2010, he began to believe. Federer, with his last Slam in 2010, somehow managed to remain in the top 3, but was gradually handing over the reigns once again to Nadal and Djokovic. Heading into Wimbledon 2012, Federer was still ranked 3, and without a Slam for 2.5 years. With Djokovic not at his best, and Nadal fresh from yet another Roland Garros title, it was now or never for Federer at his favorite Slam. In 2013, he would be touching 32, against these same athletes at the peak of their physical levels.
Phelps, heading into London 2012, had a US Olympic trial loss in his favorite 400m IM event (To Lochte) and a particularly telling 200 IM World Championship loss in 2011. He hadn’t even managed to qualify for the 400 IM at the Pan Pacifics Championships in 2010- a stunning first for a man who had swum every such final since 2002. He failed to win a backstroke medal too. He also lost his 200 IM to Lochte, in 2010, a crucial loss that signaled a change of guard, because it was the first time Lochte had ever beaten Phelps in a major event.
On the Brink
Including Tiger Woods in this list, simply because his fall from immortality coincided eerily with these two Champions showing human form- would be logical. But Woods created his own problems, and he may have needed a challenge, a down curve after things were getting too easy for him. So he faltered, as a human too. He is still not back to his best, and he is still to win an elusive Slam that could put him back in the league of one-last-hurrah-for-every-legend category. But in Golf, that wouldn’t be his last, not in a sport where we have 50 year olds competing for the titles too. His story is different, and his comeback is more about fighting his own inner demons, than the field he is in.
After winning an unprecedented 8 golds at Beijing, what was left to achieve? There were smaller less important records like the overall medal tally to conquer, or a couple of backstroke world records that others had taken. But, at age 24, when you’ve reached the very peak of the world, surely anything one does after that can’t live upto that insane period of a year. Djokovic learned it too, in 2012, after a freaky 2011 where he became the Phelps of Tennis. But he couldn’t sustain, and isn’t in bad form right now either, but the standard he set will remain a mark. But Federer, just like Phelps, made sure he was second best, and not fourth throughout his barren patch. He made sure he remained not too far behind the younger challengers, almost like he knew that he had one final spurt of vintage tennis left in him. Sampras did, as did Agassi, so why wouldn’t he? But he came so close, so often, that it’d have broken any other master. But when he said he was feeling ‘great’ before heading into yet another Wimbledon, you’d have to believe the guy. When he went 2 sets down to Julien Benneateau in the third round, just like Phelps finished outside the medals in the first event of London 2012- the 400 IM- you couldn’t really write them off just yet.
Phelps had 6 more events, and Federer, 5 more matches.
Then Phelps won a painful silver in the 200m Butterfly Final- and remained without a Gold after 3 events- where his team finished second in the 4X200m IM final. Federer scrapped his way out of trouble, but never resembled a man on a mission, not till the semi-final atleast. Federer, in the process, had reached his 32nd consecutive Quarter Final, and Phelps- even while being mortal- was just a medal short of the Olympic record too. Greatness couldn’t fade away, even when they weren’t being so great anymore. It refused to leave them, and dragged them to a final flurry of blinding brilliance.
Federer beat Djokovic and Murray- both of them more than 5 years younger, and Phelps came back to beat Lochte in the 200 IM final, almost energized by his own ordinariness so far. He then avenged his loss to Le Clos in the 100m Butterfly, to take his tally to a mind boggling 18 gold medals.
Federer won his 17th Slam, a full 6 ahead of Nadal, and 3 ahead of Sampras. While Nadal’s body is troubling him, Lochte in all likelihood was racing in his last Olympic Games too. Suddenly, Lochte’s 12 medals looks a far way off, as does Nadal’s 11 Slams.
Phelps feels he is done, and unlike Sachin Tendulkar, has chosen his time to go. There is nothing left to achieve, nothing more to prove. He is close to his peak again, but he can’t see himself fade away slowly. Federer, on the other hand, feels like there is something left to prove. Maybe a bit. He has achieved everything, even an individual Silver medal at the Olympics, but he wants to be around.
He is still the World No. 1.
He is still to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam Final since 2007. That day, if it ever comes, might be the last day of Federer’s career.
Who knows, if he had won Gold at the Olympics this time, he wouldn’t have felt the need to be motivated enough to continue. His loss to Murray in the final could be a blessing in disguise- it could give the world the privilege to watch this great Champion age like wine.