Sporting Life

Athletes find true greatness by refusing to see their limits

Needles, thread, pins, screws, bolts, nuts, glue, cement, sealant, nails. In Mallorca in Spain the local hardware shop must have already got its annual order for this Christmas. Anything that can hold Rafael Nadal's weathered, knee-aching, back-hurting, wrist-complaining body together for an extra year.

But just send enough.

Nadal can't quit because his stubborn DNA denies him this luxury. So he comes to 2017 with a third coach, Carlos Moya, who will confer with Uncle Toni and Francisco Roig and plot a resurrection. Not too far away, in Dubai, is a repaired Roger Federer, who is readying to negotiate a 20th season on the ATP Tour.

These athletes are unfamiliar with the idea of enough for how much constitutes enough? Nine French Open titles for Nadal? Seventeen Grand Slam titles for Federer. Twenty-two Grand Slam titles for Serena Williams. Seventy-nine USPGA Tour titles for Tiger Woods?

Can you get to all these places if you ever think, OK, enough?

It is why these athletes will have been slightly mystified by Nico Rosberg, who won his first Formula One title and retired. A first title was his perfect ending but for these other athletes it only constituted a start. This is the difference, perhaps, between desire and obsession.


Nico Rosberg announcing he will not defend his Formula One world championship earlier this month. The German's decision to retire after capturing his first title offers an insight into the drain winning takes that push athletes to their absolute limits. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In a way, Rosberg is a sort of second cousin of the Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa, who in 2010, at 28, her health fine, her ranking No. 1, opted to retire. "Once you reach your goals, it's really hard to find that motivation... I'm 100 per cent complete," she said.

'Complete' suggests you have reached a finish line, except that fanatics such as Lewis Hamilton, who has three F1 titles, can't really see them even as he crosses them. Their sporting lives are like unfinished masterpieces, always searching for another win, like Michael Phelps who returned for Rio and said: "If I hadn't had come back, I wouldn't have known what to do with myself and would have been frustrated with myself for not giving myself a chance."

Rosberg's ability to win and leave, to be content and know when to stop, to make his family a priority, to know he probably wasn't capable of an encore, is so utterly reasonable. But to be exceptional requires a slice of madness, to chase over 30 gold medals - as Phelps did - is powerfully unreasonable. It is an act whose beauty lies in its absurdity. Maybe Phelps wasn't thinking about going out on top because he was too busy redefining what the top is.

Rosberg is vital to us because he is our interpreter of Hamilton and Nadal and Federer and Phelps. Only the very good athlete in a way can help translate the extraordinary. He is our window, for example, to the strain of winning. He found this single victorious year to be draining and so imagine those who are expected to have only victorious years? Again and again.

Rosberg is vital to us because he is our interpreter of Hamilton and Nadal and Federer and Phelps. Only the very good athlete in a way can help translate the extraordinary. He is our window, for example, to the strain of winning. He found this single victorious year to be draining and so imagine those who are expected to have only victorious years? Again and again.

Rosberg was masterful for it's hard to win even once, to find the appropriate brew of luck, skill, circumstance, timing. Just ask golfers Sergio Garcia or Lee Westwood, both winless after 20 years of playing Majors, or tennis' Marcelo Rios who was No. 1 without a Grand Slam title.

And so sometimes when that one win comes it is sufficient. Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon in 2013 and retired and 12 months later you could still hear the joyous incredulity in her voice as she admitted that she watched her ace on matchpoint every two days on YouTube.

In the past 20 years, 20 tennis players and 60 golfers have won a single Major each and left it at that. Some over-achieved by getting there, some deserved more and were unlucky, some were satisfied, and some weren't willing to embrace the ascetic life to find it again.

To repeat in sport often requires an imbalanced, me-first, family-second, hate-losing, tunnel-vision, detail-obsessed life as relentless as Nadal chasing every ball to the ends of the earth.

Rosberg retired because he has no more appetite - perhaps his particular obsession was emulating his father who has an F1 title - but Federer plays because he tells the New York Times, "I'm still hungry". Both men deserve respect except we'll never know if Rosberg had anything left, but we'll never be in doubt with Federer and Nadal.

A Spanish knee will eventually buckle, a Swiss quill will blunt, young men will chastise them, and only then will it be fully over. Some athletes sensibly recognise their limits and leave, but some become legend because they refuse to see any and stay. For that we cannot thank them enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Athletes find true greatness by refusing to see their limits'. Print Edition | Subscribe