Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2019

The Inescapable Reality Of Twilight

It was, of course, mere happenstance, a random confluence of three events. Still, despite being merely a coincidence of timing, the withdrawal of Tiger Woods after just one round of the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs and the decisions by Serena Williams first to retire from the women’s final at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and then to drop out of the Western & Southern Open before it began, all coming within days of each other, collectively served as an especially stark reminder that time will always be the unbeatable foe of all our sports heroes.

Woods is 43 and Williams is six weeks shy of her 38th birthday, and both were felled by bad backs. At Liberty National Golf Club, this year’s site of The Northern Trust, Woods first felt pain during the pre-tournament pro-am. He responded by forgoing full swings during that round’s second nine, instead just chipping and putting while walking along with his amateur partners. But that cautionary step wasn’t enough, and after an uninspiring 75 in the opening round of competition, Woods woke up last Friday with a stiff back, the product of a strained oblique muscle. After four back surgeries in the space of three years between 2014 and 2017, Woods wisely decided not to tempt fate and pulled out of the first of three stops that comprise the Tour’s season-ending playoff series.

In Toronto, Williams had breezed into the final of the Rogers Cup, dropping only one set through her first four matches. That run included a 6-3, 6-4 win over Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, a much less dramatic meeting between the pair than their last, when Osaka’s victory at the 2018 U.S. Open was marred by a Williams meltdown in the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium. But against Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu last Sunday, her fifth match in as many days, Williams appeared hobbled from the start. Trailing 1-3 in the first set and only a quarter-hour into the match, she asked for an injury timeout, and then told the chair umpire that she was unable to continue because of back spasms.

After that disappointment Williams headed immediately to the Cincinnati suburb of Mason for the Western & Southern, a tournament she’d won twice before. But after receiving treatment and practicing Williams withdrew just hours before her first round match on Tuesday, telling the media “unfortunately my back is still not right and I know I should not take to the court.” She also thanked “the amazing fans here in the Cincinnati area” and promised to “do my best to be back here next year.”

Athletes are forced to sit because of injury every day, and the only certainty about all careers, no matter the sport, is that they come to an end. But Woods and Williams both going down at essentially the same time carried special significance first because of the place each occupies in their game, and second because of the setbacks both have endured. In men’s golf and women’s tennis Woods and Williams have been the dominant players of their generation, and to many fans (in one of those perpetual arguments about sports that has no right answer), the best to ever play their respective games.

As much as Woods and Williams are titans in their sports, both have had to overcome serious health issues, and each has suffered self-inflicted wounds – Woods through serial infidelities during his marriage and Williams by her occasionally terrible behavior on the court. Yet against considerable odds, at ages when most of their contemporaries have either retired or seen sharp career declines, both have recently enjoyed renewed success. Woods won the Tour Championship to end last season, and then claimed his fifth Masters title and fifteenth major championship in April. For her part Williams, returning from serious post-childbirth complications, went to the finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and again at Wimbledon this season.

Still, fans are reminded that even the most spectacular careers do not go on forever, and there is no sure way of knowing how the final chapter will unfold. In truly unfortunate cases there is a sudden career-ending injury, such as happened to quarterback Joe Theismann during a Monday Night Football game in 1985. Every so often the skillset that has carried a star to great heights disappears with brutal speed. Alex Rodriguez slugged 33 homers and posted a .842 OPS for the Yankees in 2015. Less than a year later he was done, essentially dismissed by the team in midseason after struggling to hit .200.

For most the final years are appropriately called the twilight, mirroring that period at the end of day when light slowly fades, and night gradually encroaches. Age saps ability and little by little the hero becomes ordinary. Derek Jeter hit .256 during his final season in the Bronx, more than fifty points below his career average, but he had possessed the good sense to announce his retirement during Spring Training. Too many others cling with increasing desperation to the folly that greatness can somehow be restored. Those are the longest goodbyes, and the most painful to watch.

It is too early to contemplate the exits of either Woods or Williams. The former’s Masters win is barely four months old, and the latter’s march to three recent Grand Slam finals is still fresh in the minds of tennis fans. Both should hear plenty of cheers in the future, and not for merely sentimental reasons.

Yet after the opening round of this week’s BMW Championship, Woods is tied for 50th in a field of sixty-nine golfers. He’ll need to improve over the next three days, because he’s currently well outside the top thirty in the FedEx Cup standings, the cutoff for next week’s Tour Championship. There is also obvious concern about whether Williams will be ready for the U.S. Open, which starts a week from Monday. Uncertainty and doubt, reminding us that as it does for every athlete, the twilight time, and ultimately the end, comes for even the greatest.

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Responses

  1. This is a beautiful look at a sensitive subject, Mike. Time and Tides wait for no one and it’s a shock when we have to let go of something so dear to us. Something that we may be better at than anyone else in the world—for a bit of Time.

    I hope that both of these athletes can tend to their physical needs and act as mentors to the following generations who aspire to attain their heights.
    Ω


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