This week Brett Favre tearfully announced his departure from the NFL. He had hinted at retirement several times over the past few years, but this week, standing with his wife at his side, he seemed finally to mean it.
But this was the impression I got in 2003 when Martina Hingis announced her retirement from professional tennis. Gone was the cocky girl who in 1997 had beaten all comers and ascended to the number one spot in the world. Since then Steffi Graf, Jenifer Capriati, and the Williams sisters had taken turns either beating her up or leaving her so badly bruised that, by 2003, The Smiling Assassin was a shadow of her former self. She retired, and declared her intention to become a professional coach. I actually believed her. Hingis vs Graf, Roland Garros 1999
Two years later, Hingis un-retired herself and returned to professional tennis. Today, tennis has sent her packing – after she tested positive for cocaine. I can’t help but wonder if she has regretted coming out of her early retirement.
It is clearly difficult for many professional sports persons to know exactly when to quit.
I remember watching Brad Gilbert’s body language during Andre Agassi's late career resurgence. With Gilbert’s help, Andre had clawed himself up from #141 in the world. At first, Gilbert’s body language proclaimed pride and support for Andre; he seemed honored to be a part of Andre’s team. But as time dragged on and Andre’s results, while decent, were not particularly stellar, Gilbert’s body language seemed to shift. He often appeared bored, as if he just wanted out of there. It was embarrassing to watch. I wasn’t surprised when Andre eventually fired him and replaced him with Darren Cahill.
I interpreted Gilbert’s disinterest as insinuating that Andre had overstayed his welcome. That of course remains debatable. There are many who believe that Andre should have quit when Pete Sampras did. I disagree. I think that Andre needed to stay on for a bit longer to individuate his career from Sampras’ and to recover some of the ground he lost during the Brooke Shield years. And by his dedication, he ended up inspiring other players to improve their fitness and conditioning and prolong their run. But he did nothing by way of clarifying the question of when should a professional player say adios.
Some believe that one should always go out on top. Many expected Sampras to do so in 2001 when he invited his parents to watch him win his 13th slam and 7th Wimbledon final. But Sampras plodded on for another year, suffered a number of humiliating losses, and finally retired after once again beating Andre Agassi in a gut wrenching four-setter at the US Open '02.
Andre vs Pete US Open 2002
This is the same Sampras who is scheduled to play Roger Federer in a much-hyped exhibition match at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night. So much for retirement.
I do not mean to give the impression that the decision to quit is always under a player’s control. This is far from the truth. The timing of when one leaves a sport is dependent in part on the amount of success one has enjoyed while playing it. For the average journeyman or bottom feeder, quitting is not an option. They just keep plugging away, hoping to make enough money to take care of the family and have something left over for retirement.
Some like Gustavo ‘Guga’ Kuerten, have retirement forced upon them by injury, before they may be psychologically ready. Guga underwent his first hip surgery in 2002. I will never forget his return match against Radek Stepanek. All Stepanek had to do to win was to keep playing drop shots. The sight of Guga waddling painfully forward on hips that were clearly not ready to be on a tennis court is one I will not soon forget. Who knows what additional damage he may have caused by his hasty return. But his actions are evidence of how difficult it is to leave a sport that you love and once dominated. Guga has finally announced his retirement in 2008. It was a foregone conclusion really.
But back to the popular cliché of quitting while you’re ahead. That doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to me that that is precisely when you need to stay on. The time to quit is when you start detecting signs of slippage that indicate that you are no longer capable of producing your best. Brett Favre actually explained it best: “I’m not up to the challenge anymore”, he said. “I can play, but I’m not up to the challenge. You can’t just show up and play for three hours on Sunday. If you could, there’d be a lot more people doing it and they’d be doing it for a lot longer. I have way too much pride. I expect a lot out of myself. And if I cannot do those things 100 percent, then I can’t play.”
Knowing when to quit is one thing. Knowing how to do so is quite another. Few sports professionals leave their field as quietly or with the same level of dignity as Steffi Graf. When she lost to Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon in 1999, Graf refused to steal Lindsay’s thunder – she just quietly walked away.
Some pointlessly prolong their stay, like Monica Seles, who last played a professional match in 2003 – but only announced her retirement five years later in 2008. Letting go is clearly difficult even when the need to do so is quite obvious.
In his frankly honest “You Cannot Be Serious”, John McEnroe admits that part of his difficulty in quitting tennis has to do with giving up being the center of attention. He still plays on the senior tour. He is the kind of player for whom the word ‘retirement’ is such anathema that he would probably rather die on a tennis court.
Retirement seems to be easier when it is active. Andre Agassi has transitioned smoothly to running his Charitable Foundation and managing his Las Vegas Academy where excellence is all areas is stressed. And it is a joy to watch the generosity of his mentorship of 16-year-old Asia Muhammed, a beautiful African-American player with talent to spare. Asia just made it to the Finals of the Tennis Channel Open. Congratulations to her and farewell Andre Agassi. Time marches on.