As the author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus didn’t quite say, to every sportsman comes a season, a time to play and a time to stop playing.
For even the greatest there is one last walk back to the pavilion or dressing-room. Some seem to take that walk calmly, as if it was just an ordinary evening stroll. Others — Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, for instance — rage, rage against the dying of the light. The only men outside the Great Triumvirate to have won more than one Slam singles title in the last 20 years, neither is likely to challenge again at one of the Slams. Both have had many seasons interrupted by injuries and operations. Both are now in the second half of their fourth decade. This week they met again in Cincinnati: a three-set, three hours long encounter eventually won by Murray. Hard slogging, only for him to lose in the next round to his latest successor as the number one British player.
Someday or evening soon at New York’s Flushing Meadow, tennis will say “Good Night and Farewell”, to the greatest woman star of the century. For at least the middle dozen of the last 20 years, Serena Williams dominated the Women’s game as no other player, not even the great Martina Navratilova, has done in the professional era.
Williams is having a last crack at the American title, but the portents aren’t good. In Cincinnati this week she lost in straight sets to the precocious Emma Raducanu, 4-6 0-6. Serena Williams was winning slams before Raducanu was even born. The young girl won’t have felt sorry for Williams — that would have been patronising — but I guess her pleasure in victory may have left her also feeling a little guilty. When, more than a hundred years ago, the young leg-spinner Arthur Mailey bowled his boyhood hero Victor Trumper, he said it felt as if he had shot a dove.
Serena Williams will, I hope, have a happier last stand, a glorious sunset exit in New York, gorgeous as Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire”. Meanwhile, she has at least held out the baton. Who can seize it? Perhaps Raducanu herself who is, of course, the reigning American champion, having won the title in last year’s Covid-strange tournament.
Not all 40-year-olds are ready to call “time” on their careers. Even as I write, Jimmy Anderson is opening the bowling for England on the second day of the Lord’s Test. Remarkably, one of the South African openers, Sarel Erwee, playing in his fifth Test, has made less than half the number of Test match runs than Anderson has taken Test wickets. Something similar must of course have happened quite often before when an inexperienced batsman faced a veteran bowler. Nevertheless…
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A cricketer even older than Anderson is still reluctant to leave the first-class game. This is Darren Stevens, now aged forty-fix. Stevens is much less famous than Anderson and has none of Serena Williams’ global celebrity, but for those of us who maintain a lifelong love affair with County Cricket, Stevens is one of the top heroes of our time.
The Test selectors have never troubled Stevens, but he has played for a quarter of a century first for Leicestershire, then for Kent. He was a better player at 30 than at 20, which is, of course, quite usual, but, remarkably he was better at 40 than at 30. Middle-order batsman, with a flair for hitting sixes, well before six-hutting became commonplace in the T20 game, and a purveyor of deceptively simple-looking medium pace, he has the appearance of a Saturday-afternoon club cricketer and the ability to make scoring runs and taking wickets look as simple as ordering a beer at the bar.
The Kent committee, to their shame and the dismay of thousands, have concluded it’s chucking-out time for Stevens. Last orders have been called and downed. The man himself thinks otherwise, sure there is life in the old dog yet. Some other County Committee will, one trusts, agree with him and offer terms. Lots of counties have a nursery of bright young things, some of them scarce wet behind the ears, yet aware that they have much to learn about the game.
Sports stars usually know when the light has faded and it is time to depart. Sometimes we are pleased to see them go because it is distressing to struggle to do well what they used to do sublimely. And yet there is a nobility in the determination to deft the cruelty of time and keep on going. And of course, the Sporting Gods are capricious beasts and you never lose the hope of a wonderful later flowering. Most true sports fans are sentimentalists and so we warm to those who seek to deny or defy the ravages of time.
Not always, however. Nobody but a brute can be comfortable watching a once-great champion having yet another one fight too many. Even his opponent may feel guilty. When Terry Downes beat the greatest of all pound-for-pound boxers, Sugar Ray Robinson, he rejected congratulations and said, sadly but finely, “I didn’t beat Sugar Ray. I beat his ghost.”