Commentary

For some, retirement isn't the end

Updated: August 25, 2009, 11:49 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Kim Clijsters AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris YoungKim Clijsters has won five of seven matches -- four against top-20 players -- since unretiring.

Comebacks in women's tennis are like snowflakes -- no two are alike -- and the game has seen a flurry of them in recent years.

Top WTA players have retired at or near the prime of their careers for reasons ranging from burnout to injury to pregnancy, only to change their minds and try to pick up where they left off. By contrast, there have been relatively few such goings and comings by top men since Bjorn Borg made an abbreviated return years after his glory days.

Kim Clijsters is the latest example. The Belgian star already had devoted a decade to the sport when she announced, a few months before her 24th birthday, that she was retiring to start a family and otherwise broaden her horizons.

Her decision was mourned by fans. Her subsequent U-turn this year was warmly welcomed -- and not terribly shocking. Since making her Act II debut in Cincinnati earlier this month, the fit and focused 26-year-old has won five of her seven matches -- all but one against top-20 players -- and has to be considered a serious contender at the upcoming U.S. Open.

That's entirely logical in the eyes of Martina Navratilova, who has firsthand experience with getting her second wind. Navratilova returned for the 2000 season at age 43 to play doubles and the occasional singles match, won her final Grand Slam title (U.S. Open mixed doubles) on the brink of 50 and gained acceptance from fans and sponsors that had eluded her as a younger player.

Clijsters will benefit from the competitive muscle memory of her past successes, both physical and psychological, Navratilova said. "She's a champion. I like to think that if this had happened to me, or Chrissie [Evert], or Steffi [Graf] -- if we'd been away from the game for a couple of years -- that we would have done the same thing. Women champions are tough mentally, and that doesn't go away. They have to earn their confidence more than men."

Like Lindsay Davenport before her, Clijsters is traveling with her husband and child. Before beating No. 9 Victoria Azarenka in Toronto, Clijsters noted in a Twitter post that "she's one of the best youngsters coming up," as if Azarenka were a generation removed from her instead of a mere six years. That gap in psyche and experience is hard-won.

[+] EnlargeLindsay Davenport
AP Photo/Charles KrupaLindsay Davenport bid the tour farewell after having her first and second children, but she never uttered the R-word.

Navratilova dismissed the argument that Clijsters, or any other top player returning after time away, can stroll onto the court and start winning because of a lack of depth in the women's field. "They're just that good, and their ego is on the line," she said.

There are many reasons women drop out, and just as many that explain their ability to come back and compete well. Chief among them is maturity. Although WTA rules now restrict a teenager's tournament play at that level, a girl who begins working her way up the junior ladder at age 12 might feel out of gas by 22, then re-emerge with a whole new perspective a few years later. Women rely more on technique than on power or speed and thus might not experience as much of a physical drop-off against their peers during a hiatus as men would.

The trend started in the mid-90s, when Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati made successful returns after long, doubt-plagued layoffs related to Seles' tragic stabbing in Hamburg, Germany, and Capriati's teenaged angst, respectively. Seles never regained her former dominance after resuming her career, though she did win her ninth and final Grand Slam title in Australia, while Capriati worked her way up to No. 1 and enjoyed her best years after the interruption.

Martina Hingis, forced out of competition by chronic injuries, marched straight back into the top 10 in 2006 after three seasons away from the game. But not all encores end happily. Hingis, slumping as injuries once more compromised her form, retired again in late 2007 after a positive test for cocaine, which she disputed but did not formally contest.

Seles waited five years after playing her last match to announce her formal retirement, and Capriati, 33 and sidelined by a shoulder injury since late 2004, still hasn't.

"I'm sure if she could figure out a way to be fit, she'd come back, too," ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said. "It's hard to walk away if you feel the bucket isn't empty.

"I'm never surprised when they come back. I'm always more surprised when they retire, especially if they're not terribly injured. As athletes age, their ideas change about how they want their careers to be. It's hard to have any clarity about that when you're in your early 20s."

Tennis Channel analyst Katrina Adams elaborated, saying players -- especially younger ones -- shouldn't be judged harshly for changing their minds.

"Any time they retire, it's because they think they have nothing left to give," said Adams, a 12-year pro who now runs the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program.

"It's what I call the 'beast' of our sport. You're so young, so protected, and the only time you're yourself is when you're out on the court. The rest of the time, your entourage is around you, telling you what to do or doing everything for you. You get fed up with that. You can't blame players for walking away."

It's also natural for top players to hit the ground running when they come back, Adams said.

"Any player who reached the upper echelon got here because of talent and mental drive," she said. "It's no mistake when you get to No. 1, and that doesn't disappear."

[+] EnlargeJennifer Capriati
Mandel Ngan/Getty ImagesJennifer Capriati returned from a long hiatus to enjoy her best years and even climb to No. 1 in the rankings.

Motherhood no longer necessarily cuts careers short. Davenport was careful not to use the R-word when she left the circuit to have her first child (and hasn't used it since having her second in June, either). At age 31, she stormed back to win three of her first four tournaments, later collected her 55th career title in Memphis, became the all-time leading prize-money winner among women athletes and eventually rose to No. 24 in the rankings before announcing she was pregnant again.

Serve-and-volleyer Brenda Schultz-McCarthy returned in 2006 at age 35, hoping to play one more Wimbledon after seven years out of action. She didn't get there, falling in the first round of qualifying, but the former top-10 player from the Netherlands did regain her old record for fastest serve in the women's game (130 mph, subsequently tied by Venus Williams).

And Kimiko Date Krumm of Japan set a new standard for lengthy sabbaticals when she came back in 2008, 12 years after her previous WTA match, and has been active throughout 2009. The 38-year-old Krumm said her husband, Michael, a German auto racing driver who met her after she had stopped playing, prompted her to give the game another whirl.

Schultz-McCarthy and Krumm had an additional challenge compared to their more prominent colleagues: scheduling. Under WTA rules, former Slam winners such as Clijsters, Davenport and Hingis have the luxury of counting on unlimited wild cards and know they will receive invitations from top tournaments.

The Dutch and Japanese stars had to play qualifying rounds and lower-level tournaments in between big events, sometimes having to wait until the last minute to find out whether they had earned wild cards. "Sometimes I'd be in the quarterfinals and feel like I should be in the final," Schultz-McCarthy said of getting to the main draw after surviving qualifiers. Krumm has played primarily on the International Tennis Federation circuit and has not won a WTA-level match this season.

"The hardest part for me was to stay healthy," said Schultz-McCarthy, who was idled by a foot injury shortly after coming back. But she said she doesn't regret returning and felt as competitive as ever.

"The first round of every tournament was very tough, but when I got through a couple of matches -- my husband said I was playing better now than then," she said. "I was so eager. On break points, I'd think, you won't get these chances too often." But Schultz-McCarthy, who has a seven-week-old son, Brendan, says she's done for real now.

Ideally, Navratilova said, players would take a solid chunk of time off -- say, two months every three years -- to rest and assess, something tennis' six-week offseason doesn't really allow for, in her opinion. "People look at it as time lost, but it's not," Navratilova said. "If I had to do it over again, I'd do that."

Perhaps that would forestall some premature retirements, but for the time being, we had better get used to them.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.