During the Carlsen – Anand match in November 2013, Sachin Tendulkar played his last cricket match (sandwiched in-between Anand’s losses in games 5 and 6, a bad set of days for Indian sports!). That prompted – by way of a NY Times article about how Tendulkar was selfish (!) for playing for so long - an article on tennis.com relating how reading that got him thinking about Federer and his possible retirement.
[NB: Having wasted some of my time reading that opinion piece on Tendulkar, feel free to skip it and just look at the Federer one.]
I can follow cricket reasonably well, but I’ve never been a real fan of the game. I am however a big tennis and chess fan, so while reading Tignor’s tennis article, I couldn’t help but think about Anand’s decline.
Anand is one of the few players whose games I studied specifically growing up. When I was just starting out, I pretty much exclusively studied Morphy and Capablanca games. It remained all about Capablanca for the next 3-4 years before Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games and Bronstein’s Zurich 1953 were added to the mix in the mid-late 90s. Then Anand’s book of best games came out in 1998, and I went through that a few times. That pretty much covers all the players/tournaments whose games I looked at systematically.
(And yes, I know much less about great players across the decades than I probably should, but that’s not the point. I’ve bought a great many books to correct this, but they have been sitting around for a while and will likely have to wait some more …)
Meanwhile, I grew up playing some tennis and watching some of the big matches on TV, but it wasn’t until I went to college in 2002 that I started playing much more and following events much more closely. There were many great players to watch, but Federer was the one who I followed the closest. So Anand and Federer have been the two players I’ve followed most closely across the two games.
Getting back to the two articles linked above, Tendulkar dropped from being arguably the greatest active batsman to just above average these last few years. Federer went through a pretty dismal 2013 by his standards, dropping all the way to #8 in the world and winning only one, relatively minor, event. While Anand isn’t quite the legend at chess that Tendulkar and Federer are in their relative spheres of influence, the list of World Champions is a short one so I’ll take the liberty of connecting the dots.
One thing that Tignor wrote stuck with me:
“I liked what Federer said after the tournament when he was asked a version of the R question. He said that tennis is ‘in the DNA,’ it’s something he has always done, and given a choice between playing and not playing, he chooses to play…. [W]e may want to protect Federer’s legacy, but he just wants to do what he loves to do. We’ll see more human moments from him in the future, and we’ll take the superhuman when we get it.”
While I’ve been quick to chalk up Anand’s decline to lack of motivation/belief, he’s kept up a steady chatter saying all the right things – that he still enjoys playing, competing, and so on.
Federer was saying all those things last year as well – and he said them in early 2012 when I noticed the first real “retirement” or “finished” talk creeping into the conversation. He silenced that for a year or so by winning Wimbledon and returning to #1. But 2013 was a worse year than even 2010 or 2011, so the media mill ran countless articles on the same theme.
This year though, he’s actually been the best of the Big 4 thus far, going deep and/or winning every tournament he’s played. He lost today in the final at Indian Wells to Djokovic, but some losses have to be expected as the normal cost of business. The same goes for Anand – I’d be amazed if he could run through this event undefeated as he did in the 2007 Mexico City event, but if he really does want to train, play, and compete, why should I add fuel to the retirement fire?
Similar to Tignor, I still get nervous for Federer and Anand at times, so I have neither given up hope nor claimed the second coming; but whether it’s a real renaissance or a dead-cat bounce, I’m happy just to see them do well again.