GORDON WHITE: Early Exits: Retirements Leave Questions, Few Answers
For those of us who enjoy excellent athletic performances, it felt as if we were being seriously deprived when two young female stars called it quits early this month and left us wondering why.
First the 37-year-old Annika Sorenstam, considered by some to be the greatest woman golfer in history, announced on May 13 that she would cease competitive golf at the end of this season. A day later the 25-year-old Justin Henin, the World's No. 1 distaff tennis player, declared she was through with pro tennis starting then and there.
These two young European women joined a long list of top athletes who stepped away from competition at the height of their careers. In most of these cases, sports fans, friends and even family members were left scratching their heads and asking, "Why now?" Selfish and angry fans often go so far as to say, "How dare they?"
I have long felt that the smartest athletes are the ones who know just when it is time for them to hang it up. Obviously Sorenstam, a native of Sweden, who has lived in the United States for years, and Henin, the second young Belgian tennis star to retire within a year, felt it was time.
I wish them all the best in their future endeavors and know I will cherish the memories of their performances over the last few years. They surely owe me nothing more than they have already let me enjoy while watching them perform.
No one who saw it can forget Sorenstam's victory in the 1996 United States Women's Open here at Pine Needles by a record score of 8 under par 272. It was her second straight U.S. Open title.
How could one forget watching the little Henin cut down to size much bigger women as she won the French Open each of the last three years and four times in the last five years? Nor can anyone forget Henin's easy 6-1, 6-3 victory over the bigger Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final of last summer's U.S. Open at Flushing Meadow. Henin also beat Kusnetsova in the final of the 2006 French Open.
But fans have insatiable desires for more of the best and often resent young players stepping down "before their time."
Fifty-two years ago, boxing fans got angry when Rocky Marciano quit boxing in 1956 at age 34. He was the undefeated world heavyweight champion when he ended his career by choice.
Tennis fans felt the same when Bjorn Borg, winner of 11 grand slam titles, retired at age 26 in January of 1983. He made a very short-lived and unsuccessful attempt to return to tournament tennis 10 years later.
There were millions of disappointed baseball fans when 30-year-old Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw, retired after the 1966 season during which he won 27 games. Unquestionably one of the best left-handed pitchers in Major League Baseball history, Koufax was unique because rarely do MLB players quit early unless injuries force them to the sidelines.
Barry Sanders, a College and Pro Football Hall of Fame athlete who quit his sport at 30, broke the hearts of all Detroit fans when he stepped aside as the Lions' star running back. The Oklahoma State Heisman Trophy winner in 1988 became the first man in National Football League history to run over 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 years as a pro. He never played an 11th year in the NFL.
Over 60 years ago, Byron Nelson quit full-time competitive golf at 35 because he was burned out and the pressure was too upsetting to his system. Also, he wanted to spend more time on his Texas ranch.
The kindly "Lord Byron" continued to play in the Masters, which he won twice, plus the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. He won the 1951 Bing Crosby, his final tour victory, at age 38. Then Nelson became one of the early television golf commentators and lasted for many years lending his worthy insights to pro golf telecasts.
Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were all born in 1912. Nelson stepped away from a rigorous tour schedule after the 1947 season, a year before Hogan, a very late bloomer to major golf triumphs, won the first of his four United States Open championships.
Many other athletes quit "early" for various reasons, to the dismay of their fans. Not all prospered. Rocky Marciano lost considerable money through poor investments before being killed in a 1969 airplane crash at age 45.
Sorenstam, who has won 72 times on the LPGA Tour, including three times this year, and has won 10 majors, said, "I have other priorities in my life." These include a golf academy in Florida, a Sorenstam foundation, a golf-course designing business and clothing lines. She emphasized that she plans to start a family after getting married next year.
Sorenstam, the only woman to shoot a score of 59 for 18 competitive holes, suffered from a ruptured disk in her lower back early in 2007. While she was recovering, the superb, young golfer from Mexico, Lorena Ochoa, replaced the Swede as the No. 1 ranked woman golfer in the World. And there Ochoa remains as Sorenstam will try to regain the coveted No. 1 rank before this year ends and the Swede exits stage right.
Henin was scheduled to begin defense of her French Open championship today, but will be on the sidelines instead. Saying she began thinking about retirement from the sport last year, Henin added, "I was at the end of the road."
The Belgian withdrew from an Italian tournament two weeks ago saying she was suffering "fatigue." Henin had a reputation for withdrawing from tournaments during play now and then, and giving lame excuses for these defaults. But she finally quit for good less than 10 years after turning professional.
Henin won the first of her two U.S. Open titles in 2003 when she beat the other youngster from Belgium, Kim Clijsters, 7-5, 6-1, in the final. Clijsters retired from tennis last year after marrying Brian Lynch, an American pro basketball player. They had their first child last February.
Tennis may have a bit more youthful retirement than most other sports what with Borg, Andrea Jaeger, Jennifer Capriati, Aaron Krickstein, Tracy Austin, plus Henin, Clijsters and others stopping before they reached 30. They just did not wish, for whatever reasons, to make the long run the way Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the elder statesperson of all time, Martina Navratilova, did.
Burnout is the common excuse. This can be a real problem for young athletes thrown into the swirling, competitive arena of international sports when they are less than 10 years old.
They compete and train relentlessly for 20 years before they are 30. Who can blame them for tiring of the grind and the unending demands placed upon them by greedy agents, commercial interests and television? There is little freedom to grow up like "normal" kids. In many cases their parents, who push them forward, are as much to blame as anyone.
Thus you have athletes deciding to turn away from sports almost as soon as they are able or allowed to make their own decisions for themselves.
Sorenstam has been her own boss for a long, long time and this retirement is the decision of a mature and intelligent young woman. In the case of Henin, she is obviously burned out at an early age and has a perfect right to step away from competition.
It is incumbent upon fans and those handlers of athletes to respect such decisions.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter of The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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