Commentary

Former tennis stars now facing reality

Originally Published: April 29, 2009
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Mark PhilippoussisEthan Miller/Getty ImagesFormer Wimbledon and U.S. Open finalist Mark Philippoussis starred in "The Age of Love."

Tennis players don't retire, they go on reality TV instead.

That seems to be the rule these days. More and more of the sport's famous names are signing on for reality shows -- and often, sending a signal that their playing days are definitely behind them.

The lineup has recently featured a flurry of former WTA No. 1s, including three this spring -- Jennifer Capriati on ABC's "The Superstars," Martina Hingis on the British ITV network's "Beat the Star" series and Justine Henin on Belgian television's "12 Travaux de … Justine Henin" ("The 12 Tasks of Justine Henin").

Capriati's announcement, made last week, is the latest. Teamed with former "Baywatch" and "Melrose Place" actor David Charvet, she will compete with other athlete-celebrity pairs in the six-episode series filmed in the Bahamas.

The teen star who flamed out and returned as a comeback queen has never officially announced her retirement from the sport. Despite being sidelined with a shoulder problem since late 2004, Capriati continued for years to insist that she was still aiming for a comeback. Now, at 33, this is her first significant public commitment outside tennis and could be a signal that she too has drawn a line underneath her career.

If "The Superstars" keeps with the personality-oriented tradition of reality TV, there should also be some catching up with the three-time Grand Slam champ, who has been out of the limelight for some time.

In July 2007, her last lengthy public interview, Capriati told the New York Daily News that her enforced exile from the sport had led to depression and even the occasional thought of suicide. "I was just alive because of this. I've had to ask, 'Well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now?'" she said. "I've only known one speed -- 100 mph -- and now I feel stuck in this place where I can't move."

NFL receiver Terrell Owens, Olympic skier Bode Miller and former WNBA star Lisa Leslie are some of the other athletes also appearing on the show, which begins airing in June.

Tennis' other great teen phenom of the '90s, Hingis, pitted her sporting talents against lesser-known opposition on British screens this weekend. "Beat the Star" features famous athletes competing with members of the public in a range of tasks like racing dirt buggies, walking on logs, identifying celebrity photos and dropping peas into a bottle.

Hingis lost her contest to a 22-year-old opponent, a dentistry student, but looked trim and in shape during the various athletic challenges. "I try to keep fit by doing different things. I have my horses and skiing definitely keeps you fit," she said before the show.

Hingis' retirement following a positive test for cocaine made headlines around the world, and the Swiss Miss has kept a low profile since. There have been a few pictures in Swiss newspapers with various boyfriends, the odd horse-jumping competitions and a handful of tennis exhibitions. Her two-year suspension for the positive test ends in October, so there is the possibility that the five-time slam champ could defy the reality TV curse and try yet another comeback.

Henin's retirement took place under less dramatic circumstances but was no less unexpected. In May 2008, the Belgian became the first player to retire while still holding the No. 1 ranking. Her television project is perhaps the most extensive of the three, spanning 12 separate shoots in which Henin takes on jobs that range from modeling to cooking to singing to ringing up a cash register.

She has also made a hush-hush cameo on the wildly popular French primetime soap opera "Plus Belle la Vie." The episode, in which Henin plays herself, is scheduled to air the week after next. Once private and reserved, Henin became noticeably more comfortable in the spotlight during the last year of her playing career and has continued in that vein while exploring various post-tennis options.

Martina Navratilova has also been part of the reality TV brigade, most famously for her 2008 participation in ITV's Survivor-esque "I'm a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!" Contestants lived on a diet of rice and beans in the Australian outback and endured such trials as having insects poured over themselves. Navratilova was unfazed. "It was like a tickling massage," she said later. "It didn't hurt, until one bit me on the nose. But it was just mind over matter."

The 22-time Slam champ became one of the audience's favorite contestants and went all the way to the final.

[+] EnlargeJennifer Capriati
Getty ImagesJennifer Capriati joins other stars such as Terrell Owens, Robert Horry, Lisa Leslie and Jeff Kent on the forthcoming ABC reality show, "The Superstars."

Even reigning U.S. and Australian Open champion Serena Williams has been dipping her toe into the water again. After a brief pause in her various television forays over the years -- she and sister Venus even had their own reality show on ABC Family in 2005 -- Serena appeared on an episode of the CBS game show "Million Dollar Password" early this year.

Maria Sharapova is taking things a step further, exploring a role as an executive producer on a tennis-themed show on MTV.

It was Monica Seles who kicked off this trend among her fellow former WTA No. 1s, officially marking her retirement by appearing in ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" last year. She did not survive the first cut but observes in her newly released autobiography that the experience did help her realize her binge-eating days were over. "I cried but I did not go back to my old habits," she said.

But Seles was not the first tennis player to take a turn on the dance floor -- Alicia Molik and Todd Woodbridge have both participated in the Australian version of the show. Both only made it through a few rounds, indicating that the footwork required on a tennis court does not translate well to the ballroom. Still, Lleyton Hewitt's wife, Bec, an actress, won the first edition of the competition shortly before linking up with Hewitt.

The most notorious chapter in this series remains Mark Philippoussis as the star of NBC's Bachelor-esque "Age of Love." Philippoussis, who did not know the premise of the show when he signed up, had to chose one woman out of a group of 20-somethings or a group of 40-somethings. Soon after, he hurt his knee during the Hopman Cup competition and has not played on the ATP Tour since.

A couple of former ATP pros have kept their recent reality cameos more circumspect. Jan-Michael Gambill made an appearance on VH1's "Tough Love," and the voice of Justin Gimelstob (who considers himself lucky to have been beaten out by Philippoussis for the "Age of Love" slot) was featured in a scene on Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New York City."

Can more players be far behind? All pros have to hang up their rackets some time, but not all, it seems, are ready to stop performing.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.