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Michele Willens Headshot

Face It: How to Make an Elegant Exit

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ROGER FEDERER
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Roger Federer lost early in the French Open this week and was immediately bombarded with retirement questions. (Thirty-two being ancient in dog and athletic years) He has brought so much class to the game, one can only hope his departure will be equally graceful.

I've been thinking about exits lately. No, not the big one, or even how we normal folks choose to retire, or shift gears. I am instead pondering how very public people have elegantly -- or not-chosen to recede.

Philip Roth just performed what he said was his last public reading. (Roth's exit has been in installments. First he announced he would no longer write) Derek Jeter is in the midst of his final season, hoping to emulate his long-time teammate Mariano Rivera. Rivera, last year, had as memorable and fitting a closing act as humanly possible. (He would have preferred to do it the previous year, but after a silly injury, smartly deferred the decision) Fortunately, he left the field at the top of his game. Similarly, Barbara Walters said farewell with all the applause and testimonials, but most important, she went out doing what she always did best: nabbing the big "gets." Beloved Broadway babe Elaine Stritch took over the Café Carlyle for her final curtain call.

Athletes arguably have the toughest call. Hanging up the uniform means surrendering huge salaries and high-profile lives, and going off into an uncertain future. (See O.J.) One can become a late night joke (See Brett Farve) if they too often change their expiration date. One can simply go on too long, threatening to mar a perfect career. (See Willie Mays and Lance Armstrong, one for mediocre late play, one for indecent behavior). NFL stars Jim Brown and Barry Sanders and tennis greats Steffi Graff and Pete Sampras are considered role models -- those who left on top at just the right time.

In the television news arena, the most elegant exit was probably Tom Brokaw's, who stepped down at the top of his game and the ratings. He had already segued into a second career as a hugely successful non-fiction author, and even though he no longer would anchor the nightly news, made it known he would still be around as occasional sage analyst and maker of documentaries. By contrast, think of his counterpart, Dan Rather, who may have jumped the shark (as they say in television) and paid a price, going out in such dismal fashion that you forgot he'd been one of our great reporters.

In the entertainment world, Greta Garbo arguably made the most famous exit, simply saying she wanted to be alone. But I would argue the most elegant one was that of Cary Grant, who said he had had enough, completed a few age-appropriate roles in Charade and Father Goose, and then headed down to the racetrack and other passionate pastimes. It's fair to say he went out as he performed all those years and that's all he owed us. Similarly, Johnny Carson made one of the most heartfelt and elegant of exits and then went on to the solitude he much preferred.

In politics, we've recently seen a rash of retirements from Congress, but those are generally out of frustration with a stagnant situation, and most the figures move on to earn real money as lobbyists or lawyers. LBJ probably made the most dramatic exit from public life, but it was hardly by choice. (He can RIP knowing Bryan Cranston is bringing him to vibrant life) Most presidents since LBJ have managed to lead pretty exemplary post-White House lives, so "exit" is hardly a fair description. Their time was up and the question became what to do with the rest of it.

As exemplified by Brett Favre, the on-again off-again exit really can come back to haunt. If director Steven Soderbergh makes another movie, for example, he will have a lot of explaining to do. Richard Nixon's "You won't have me to kick around anymore" turned out not to be true, though it's hard to figure out who got the last laugh there. The 'right to lie' has even infected the music world: Frank Sinatra meant it -- until he didn't -- and the Eagles have enjoyed a decades-long farewell tour. Is the early exit merely a ploy to make way for the great comeback?

Which brings us back to Roger Federer, who has brought more class to tennis than anyone since Arthur Ashe. You just know he wants to win, or at least compete strongly, in one more Grand Slam. He certainly deserves it, probably as much as the volatile and frankly, class-less, Jimmy Connors did. Connors, in case you need reminding, went out in one of the splashiest comeback finales of all time.

I have hope for Federer, as it seems the famed tend to go out as they came in. Perhaps no goodbye was as moving as Lou Gehrig's, forced upon him way before he would have chosen. I guess if you can say you are lucky -- even in the face of the pain and uncertainty ahead -- you've made the most elegant exit of all.