In the world of tennis, September 2022 will go down in history as the end of an era. First, Serena Williams closed out a standout 27-year career at the US Open—a departure shortly followed by the announcement that Roger Federer would be playing his last match at the Laver Cup.
As one of the greatest tennis players in the world, Federer shattered records throughout his 24 years in the sport. He picked up 20 Grand Slam wins, surpassing his personal hero Pete Sampras, and is currently the oldest player to become world no. 1 at the age of 36. He has been credited with revolutionising the sport, bringing it to a new level with his style of play.
Yet all the talent in the world couldn’t keep time from catching up to the Swiss legend. In his retirement letter, the 41-year-old Federer cited physical limitations as the reason why he was finally walking away—he had been battling nagging injuries for three years, and his body was sending him a clear message.
I am what I do
In 2019, Federer shared in a CNN interview that he wanted to eventually retire on his own terms, which is presumably how every athlete wants to go out. However, graceful, lasting retirements are the exception rather than the rule. The NFL’s Tom Brady has been making headlines because his inability to stay retired has been rocking his marriage. Even basketball legend Michael Jordan came out of retirement twice.
When the time comes for a professional athlete to step down, it can be hard to separate themselves from the sport. Sport careers often begin early, with promising talents devoting much of their youth to training. Once they go “pro”, their identity becomes significantly entwined with the sport, especially when they become a big name. And so, moving on can leave them feeling lost.
Athletes or not, the struggle with tying our identity to what we do is something all of us can relate to. Even for us believers, though we know our identity as the children of God (John 1:12), we repeatedly succumb to the world’s definition of and benchmark for identity, most especially in the way we introduce ourselves based on our occupations. I’ve seen how friends struggled with their self-esteem during seasons of unemployment, particularly during the height of the pandemic, because not having a job left them questioning their value in the world.
I’ve been blessed with a job that’s close enough to what I’ve always wanted to do with my life, and I’m happy to call myself a journalist/editor/writer. But linking myself to these roles also opens me up to feeling insecure, particularly when I encounter people who are doing what I do too, and are better at it. It reminds me how replaceable I am, and how temporary this status is.
Retiring with confidence
Early Saturday morning, Federer took his final bows as a competitive tennis player after taking the court side by side with arguably his greatest rival in the sport, Rafael Nadal. As singles competitors, “Fedal” gave the tennis world some of its most intense matches, and the Spaniard openly wept courtside during Federer’s highly emotional farewell as the legend spoke about how he “didn’t want it to feel lonely out there.”
“To say goodbye in a team, I always felt I was a team player at heart,” Federer said. “I’m happy, I’m not sad. It feels great to be here. I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time—and everything was the last time.”
For a man who built his name flying solo, it seems intentional for Federer to end his run with a doubles match. Certainly, his physical limitations played a role in the decision, but I think it also highlights how lonely it is when we are defined by something as self-focused as our careers. Federer’s retirement in a team ended up highlighting not just the fact that he was a legendary tennis player, but also the relationships he had cultivated along the way.
On Sunday, Federer started the first day of the rest of his life as Not a Tennis Player. Unlike Serena Williams, who has stated that she will be going on to manage a venture capitalist firm, Federer has not publicly revealed his future plans. The world will be watching closely to see what he does next—will Roger Federer actually be able to truly let go of competitive tennis?
For those of us who are “typical workers”, retirement can be something we look forward to while we’re still in the workforce. We eagerly await the day when we don’t have to get up early in the morning anymore, where we can just relax every day. So the fact that Federer had to emphasise that his retirement isn’t a sad event is interesting— after all, while he will no longer be in active competition, he will still be able to play tennis.
However, as someone with parents who are either retired or close to it, I’ve come to see how retiring from a career can be a sad thing when we’re not prepared for it. Thus, it’s so important that with the help of the Holy Spirit, we orient our minds with the truth of God’s Word so that we always remember who we really are even as we walk away from the passions and occupations that fulfilled us but are no longer right for us. We are reminded that “there is a time for everything” (3:1), including a time for building up and another for tearing down (3:3).
As we go through different seasons in life, whether by force or by choice, the only thing that can effectively ground us is being identified with the only true constant in life—He who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
When we identify ourselves with Jesus, we don’t have to worry about proving ourselves through what we do. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon cautions us to remember our Creator “before the door to life’s opportunities is closed and the sound of work fades” (12:4, NLT). As we rest at His feet and listen to Him in the midst of a fast-paced world that pushes us to always be in motion to have value, we will find that we have “chosen what is better” (Luke 10:42).
The Lord will lead us through all circumstances—He not only “directs the steps of the godly”, but He “delights in every detail of their lives” (Psalm 37:20, NLT). And so we can be confident that God will guide us (Psalm 16:7, NLT) and show us the way of life (16:11, NLT) as long we keep our eyes on him always (16:8).