Gibbon, Federer and the United States: Some Reflections on Decline


By chance, I happened to be reading Edward Gibbon’s monumental, classic account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire while watching Roger Federer’s semi-final match against Andy Murray at the Australian Open. I was reading Gibbon as part of a reflection on the role of the United States in the world following the jamboree of President Obama’s inauguration. Gibbons’ work, much like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, analyzes long cycles in history and the inevitability of rise and fall. According to Gibbon empires like Rome and with Kennedy France, England, Spain, Holland and the United States, have certain internal contradictions which lead to their eventual decline. There is a tragic sense that nothing can change this destiny.


Like empires and great powers, is Federer’s decline inevitable? At 31, he has won 17 Grand Slam titles including all four Grand Slam events, was number one for over 300 weeks, and has reached at least the quarterfinals in 35 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. All these records certainly allow him to claim the title of the greatest tennis player of all time. But his match against Murray showed that he is losing some of his masterful touch. Not only were the drop shots too long, but his service had none of its usual zip. Are we seeing the end of Roger’s reign? The younger generation of Murray, Nadal and Djokovic have taken the game to another level both physically and technically. The majestic one handed backhand of Federer seems overwhelmed by the power of the two handers; the younger players have legs that defy traditional training. Seeing the great veteran Rod Laver at courtside, I could only wonder what he thought he would do against this younger generation.

As for the United States, the recent inauguration of President Obama was most disappointing. For those who admired the poetry reading by Robert Frost at John Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960, it was disheartening to see the media focusing on Michele Obama’s hairstyle (and later her dress at the inaugural ball), the composure of the two daughters, and the singing of Beyoncé (did she lip-sync or not?). All this frivolity left me thinking that Gibbon’s description of the end of the Roman Empire resembles the current state of affairs in the U.S. Almost 8% of the working potential is still unemployed yet the stock market is moving toward 14,000. Elected officials cannot agree on a budget, yet alone agree on how to reduce the deficit and debt. Is all this frolicking going on while Rome is burning?

Gibbon and Kennedy raised the spectre of inevitable decline from the heights of power. Like a pendulum, they predicted that over time powerful nations and empires would decline and fall. The argument that the United States is exceptional presupposes that it is an exception to that reality. As for Roger, 31 does seem rather old for tennis players today. Remember that Ken Rosewallwas only 18 years old when he won the singles titles at the Australian and French Championships and 21 years later was a finalist at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at 39. It’s difficult to imagine Roger playing at 39, but we all hope he will keep playing at a high level for a little longer. He’s such a pleasure to watch as opposed to the callow youth who have an unsightly dependence on coaches/girlfriends/mothers/fathers. As for the United States, I will make no predictions, but there are ominous signs as suggested in the latest National Intelligence Report.

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