Tom Brady and Roger Federer are facing similar pressures of having to live up to their own success while their careers begin to wind down.
Tom Brady is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. How, then, is it possible that Eli Manning, who has received as much skepticism as he has accolades, has beaten Brady twice in the Super Bowl? I would venture to say that Manning also outplayed Brady in those Super Bowls, was able to drive his team down the field on the last drive of the game to win each time, while Brady was not able to perform at his best in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI.
I think part of the answer is that Brady has different pressures than he did when he was younger. Brady is under more pressure now then when he was a young, unheralded quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl. It was a great story that a guy that was a backup at the University of Michigan could come into the NFL and start for the champion Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick was a genius and everything the Pats did was the model of excellence. There were very few stains on the resumes, especially for Brady. Even the years after the first Super Bowl win Brady was young, full of confidence... Really the only thing that stopped him was a season-ending injury, the brilliance of Peyton Manning's Colts and their comeback to win the AFC Championship in 2007, or just a hiccup against the Ravens.
Things have changed around New England. The luster was a bit stained after the loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVII where Brady and the offense were dominated by the Giant defense. This has been followed by home losses in the playoffs. The doubts were real; Brady and Belichick were not invincible.
The pressure dynamic has changed for Tom Brady. Now, you've lost an undefeated season and Super Bowl in which you were a huge favorite. He is supposed to win and always come through and yet, the last two Super Bowls saw home come up short. Add to that the inevitable feelings that the clock on his career is ticking louder and louder... These things create a new type of pressure that Roger Federer I would speculate can attest to as well. And, I think you see that in the performances of both all-time greats.
Part of the issue is that while their skills have diminished maybe only a little their competitors have grown faster, stronger, and better. Add that to two themes that are often proliferated by the media and can become accepted by great players:
(1) I am an all-time great and I am supposed to win and always come through in the clutch,
(2) I am getting older and maybe I am not supposed to dominate like I used to.
This certainly can create more pressure because you feel the need to be perfect and prove yourself over and over again. To always be on your "A" game and make the play. What happens? You pressure yourself. You force plays you normally wouldn't try. This is a natural consequence and hard to avoid.
Maybe Federer would not admit to this but having watched him closely at Slams over the last year it seems to me that his belief is not as strong. This makes sense. Nadal and Djokovic are great champions in their own right. And, Tsonga and Murray have the ability to lift their games and beat anyone. Yet, everyone expects Fed to always play great while at the same time wondering if he is too old. A tough position to be in for sure.
The results of this pressure is that you will see Federer and Brady do things that maybe would have not happened while in their prime. Fed lost a 2 sets lead at Wimbledon which is unfathomable. However, when you factor in the pressures of living up to his past record of success and the ticking of the clock, the doubts have a little more weight to affect the confidence. And, now with every missed opportunity the weight of doubt grows a little more. That is why Brady and Federer desperately seek to win another championship.
With time ticking down on their careers Brady and Federer must understand the gravity of either a Super Bowl appearance or Grand Slam final. "Is it my last shot?" has to be reverberating in their minds. But, this is part of what makes each of them great. While these doubts would succumb others to self-doubt and poor performance, Brady and Federer are still bringing all-world games. It is just that now the stakes seem higher and the opportunities fewer. When they are not invincible we are surprised, but should we be? Is it realistic that we ask them to always win, and be perfect? I don't think so.
Will Brady or Fed win another of their respective championships? I don't know. I will guarantee you one thing, if they begin to lose trust in their abilities to win the big one they will not win another one. These great champions will need to trust themselves when they get their next shot and go for the win again. That is what I would expect to happen; they will play big again when their opportunity is there in front of them to win the championship.
So, don't be surprised if Brady wins the Super Bowl next year, or that Fed wins a Slam. They are both all-time greats that have shown to be human as their careers travel in to their final acts.