Is it better to quit while you are at the top of your game, or to fade away slowly?

By NPR’s Frank Deford

Ah, once again: the perennial question about the great champion as he grows into athletic dotage: Should he quit when he is still near the top of his game? Or should he keep playing the sport he loves, unashamed at more everyday defeats to everyday players?

Roger Federer suffered at Wimbledon last week. Does it dim a champion’s legacy that we saw him diminished at the end, even if he was extraordinary at his zenith? Or, do we eventually forget his defeats to the acolytes of Father Time and only remember the glory days?

The decline of the stars in individual sports is more obvious, of course. Was anything sadder than Muhammed Ali looking like another old tomato can? When there are teammates around, the star is not quite so scrutinized. It’s interesting that the magnificent baseball player, Albert Pujols, has declined precipitously –– and at pretty much the age Federer is –– but more attention is paid to how the Angels overpaid Pujols than how he’s performing –– let alone should he hang up his spikes.

Still, old heroes on teams are allowed more to troop the colors their last, lingering seasons.

But watching athletes who were out there alone and who were so special –– like Federer, like the boxer Manny Pacquiao –– watching them decline. Nevermind what they want –– why, it almost feels as if they have no right to let us see them being mere mortals.