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Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Switzerland's Roger Federer at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia on Jan 30, 2020.ISSEI KATO/Reuters

This week, Roger Federer dropped an unsurprising bit of news that was treated like a bolt out of the clear blue sky.

“I hope that in 2021 I will return to the courts,” Federer said in a speech while receiving an award as the top Swiss athlete of the past 70 years. “But if my career had to end here, well, it would be incredible to end it with this award.”

I’m not sure what the headline is supposed to be here? ‘Old man is old’?

Federer is the top Swiss athlete of the past 70 years because he’s been playing for about that long. At 39, he’s 14 years older than Bjorn Borg was when he retired; eight years older than Pete Sampras at the same point; and six years older than John McEnroe.

In human terms, Federer is in early middle-age. In tennis years, he is Methuselah.

That’s not even considering the nearly 12 months he has spent recovering from a knee surgery, which apparently hasn’t taken. And that is after ages of persistent back problems.

Playing high-level tennis is a siege undertaken on the body’s joints. Federer has managed to withstand it as well as anyone, but there’s a point where you can’t hold out any longer.

It is not like this will end prematurely. Federer is laden with trophies and covered in glory. He has more money than God. He will continue to earn truckloads after he has stopped playing, thanks to many endorsements that trade on his pristine reputation rather than his world ranking.

So why is it so unthinkable – both to himself and to his public – that he call time on tennis once his body stops co-operating, as it plainly has? When did “retire” become a bad word in sports?

The same thought occurred this week when Henrik Lundqvist announced he was skipping the entirety of next season.

Lundqvist has an unspecified heart ailment. He is 38 years old. He’s been jettisoned by the team that made him famous, and scooped up for some low-paid work as a backup. He has what I assume is a full life off the ice. And it’s his heart we’re talking about, not his knees.

But Lundqvist’s release on the subject ended with what seemed like a half-promise to return: “… I’ll be back to share the next steps.”

Nobody leaves easy any more. No one. Eventually, everyone gets knocked off the horse. But rather than roll with the fall, these days, the fashionable thing is to grab hold of the stirrups and get dragged along for a couple more years.

Why? There is no financial incentive. A good-to-great player in any major sport earns a lifetime’s worth of resources in a couple of mid-career years.

It is down to two things – the modern fitness cult and improvements to working conditions.

Not so long ago, sports prowess was treated like a gift from above. Some people had it, some didn’t. Those who did would eventually lose their superpowers. Older players drifted off into second careers as publicans or car-dealership owners, knowing the brass ring was only meant to be held for a short while.

Then someone put a treadmill in the locker-room. And hired a couple of trainers. Then a dozen more trainers. And then a hundred different kinds of health specialists.

Now your gifts aren’t just gifts. They’re something you must constantly re-earn. Once you take the magic out of it, you introduce the concept of shame. As much as you may have won your place, you can also lose it through sloth and indolence. There is nothing more hateful to the public than a chubby pro. He has squandered his talent through insufficient worship of the Gods of Nautilus.

As every player gets fitter and fitter, the expectation is that he/she can combat the ageing process by sheer will. Those who don’t have failed themselves. An increasing number of top pros can only find an excuse to leave once they’ve suffered a catastrophic injury.

We’ve now regularly got 40-year-olds dragging themselves out on the ice every other night, so diminished they are only employed because it’s hoped their grey-beard example will keep the actually good players out of the bar at 4 a.m. These are the ‘character’ guys. It used to be everyone was expected to have character. Now that quality is reserved for the elderly, so that they needn’t suffer the ignominy of retirement.

For every Tom Brady – a senior still within grasping distance of his best – there are three Patrick Marleaus – someone powered entirely by lovability and glory-days energy.

Add to this the attractiveness of the athletic life. We think of the perks purely in terms of cash, but it is so much more than that. Life as a pro is preposterously gilded, but it also imbues the participant with an outsized sense of purpose.

The modern athletic routine combines the best features of army life (unchanging daily rhythms, the social binding created by combat, a clear mission) and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (all-first-class charter flights, five-star hotels, team-employed problem solvers on speed dial).

Once you quit, you may still have the money. But no one cares what you do with your days any more. Your purpose evaporates. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

It’s also more than a little likely your personal life won’t survive the transition intact. They have a saying in the NHL – the first thing that goes are your hands; the second is your wife.

This is why so many former athletes talk about the profound depression they feel once it’s over. It’s not sports they miss. It’s the routine of sports. It’s the enormous human support system. They are having to discover in their 30s and 40s what most of us must figure out in our late teens or early 20s. That it’s tough out there on your own. Having been coddled their entire adult lives, more than a few are catastrophically unprepared for this shift.

Really, now that I’m thinking about it, the question shouldn’t be ‘Why won’t athletes retire anymore?’ It ought to be something more nuanced – ‘Why would any sane person choose to leave this Shangri-La?’

The counter-argument is only this – that there is something sad about watching the great ones hang on too long. When people think of, say, Gordie Howe, none of them are picturing him in a Hartford Whalers uniform. They want to remember him as a Detroit Red Wing, in his prime. Back when the most remarkable thing about him was his ability, rather than his age.

Of all the glorious things an athlete can manage, going out (and staying out) while on top may be the most glorious of all. Because so few are able to do it.

But it is impossible, and maybe unfair, to judge someone for being unable to manage it. Would you leave? Would I? Not on your life. You ever been on a private jet? Because you could get used to that in a hurry.

It’s only at the end that big stars become like the rest of us, realizing that however much they appreciated the boom times, they were not prepared for the inevitable bust.