WIMBLEDON, England — Most tennis professionals retire in their mid-30s. But last week there was Serena Williams, at almost 41, who battled a competitor just over half her age for more than three hours at Wimbledon.
Venus Williams, too, is there. She played mixed doubles, with tape on her right knee and not so much spring in her step at 42. Roger Federer, who hasn’t played since limping out of Wimbledon last year, plans to return to the tennis tour in September when he turns 41. Rafael Nadal is threatening a deep run at Wimbledon and eyeing a Grand Slam at 36 after a medical procedure numb the nerves in his troublesome left foot.
To varying degrees, the biggest names in tennis carry on. Why is it so hard, with their best years behind them, to leave the stage and relax with their millions? And it’s not just tennis. Tiger Woods, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion, is struggling to recover from devastating leg injuries at 46. Tom Brady can’t stay away from football. Regular workers go through life believing that retirement is the end of the game. Professional athletes are not.
It’s not just advances in physical preparation and nutrition that keep their bodies in the game. The changing nature of the sports and celebrity industry conspires to keep stars around much longer than they once did. But there is also another element that has remained constant through the generations.
“I 100% understand why they want to continue,” said Martina Navratilova, a longtime No. 1 and 18-time major singles champion who retired at 37 in 1994, returned to doubles play and never didn’t retire for good until she was almost 50.
“You really appreciate it and you realize how lucky you are to be out there doing what we’re doing,” Navratilova said. “It’s a drug. It’s a very legal drug that a lot of people would like to have but can’t get.
Serena Williams left Wimbledon in the first round for the second consecutive year, far from the fittest and out of breath. She and Federer will soon face the lack of rankings in the sport they have dominated for decades. Venus Williams decided at the last minute to play mixed doubles at Wimbledon. But there was no announcement on exit strategies; no target dates on end dates.
“You never know where I’m going to show up,” Venus Williams said on Friday, before she and Jamie Murray lost to Alicia Barnett and Jonny O’Mara on Sunday in a third-set tiebreaker in the round of 16. final.
Earlier on Sunday at a ceremony at Center Court, Federer, who holds a men’s record eight Wimbledon titles but hasn’t played a match in a year, said he hoped to play Wimbledon “sometime more” before retiring.
It’s a new kind of limbo: great champions well past their prime but not yet ready to make a career out of it while outsiders deal with speculation about when the call will come. Nadal, who has sparked a lot of retirement talk himself and said he was set to retire just weeks ago due to chronic foot pain, understands the public’s quest for clarity. Famous athletes “are a part of so many people’s lives”, he said after advancing to the third round of Wimbledon.
Even Nadal said he felt unsettled after watching his friend Woods become just a part-time golfer. “It’s also a change in my life.”
But Woods and the Williams sisters, like other aging and often absent sports stars, remain active, not retired. There may be commercial incentives to keep it that way. Official retirement doesn’t just end a playing career. He can terminate a sponsorship deal or endorsement deal and reduce a star’s visibility.
“Usually it’s black and white that when you announce your retirement, it clearly gives the company a right to terminate,” said longtime American tennis agent Tom Ross.
But there are exceptions, Ross said, and champions who are late in their careers and of the stature of Federer and Serena Williams often have deals that offer them security even if they retire before expiration. of the agreement. One example is Federer’s 10-year clothing deal with Uniqlo.
He, like Serena Williams, also has the luxury of time.
Almost all other unranked tennis players would not be able to gain regular entry into top tournaments if they decided to continue. But Federer and Williams have access to wild cards with their buzz-generating stamp, and can thus choose their places.
Nike, as Federer and others have discovered, is not inclined to invest large sums in near-retirement superstars, favoring active athletes with longer runs. But Mike Nakajima, a former director of tennis at Nike, said Williams, still sponsored by Nike, was in an exceptional position. She has her own building on the Nike campus.
“His building is bigger than Portland International Airport,” Nakajima said. He added: “She got her hands on so many different things, so many interests, so many passions, that I think in many ways it won’t matter when she stops. Serena will always be Serena.
This week, EleVen of Venus Williams, her lifestyle brand, launched an all-white Wimbledon clothing collection that wasn’t hurt by the fact that Williams was actually playing Wimbledon, if only in mixed doubles. , after more than 10 months of absence. round.
“Just inspired by Serena,” Venus Williams said.
Navratilova, like many in the game, believes Venus and Serena Williams will retire together when the time comes. If he comes. The benefits of officially announcing retirement are few: a temporary increase in publicity and an end to random drug testing. It can, in some cases, start the countdown to your pension or qualify you for election to a sport’s Hall of Fame.
Retirement is perhaps more of a ritual than a necessity. John McEnroe, for his part, never officially retired, a technicality which, in his case, allowed him to continue earning more for a time through some existing contracts.
“Well, look how well retirement has worked out for Tom Brady; it got a lot of attention and then it was, ‘Oh, I changed my mind.’ OK!” Navratilova said with a laugh. She added, “Ask a doctor or a lawyer how much longer are you going to keep practicing? People put thoughts in your head that might not be there. other.
Federer has heard questions about retirement since finally winning the French Open in 2009, completing his streak of singles titles at each of the four Grand Slam events at age 27. Venus Williams, who went through a mid-career period partly related to an autoimmune disease, has also been hearing them for more than a decade.
“When it’s my last, I’ll let you know,” she said at Wimbledon last year.
Here she is, back for more, just like her little sister, though maybe even the Williams don’t know how much more. Navratilova advises against giving too much notice. When she announced that 1994 would be her last season, she regretted it.
“If I had to do it again, I would certainly say nothing, because it was exhausting; it was much more emotionally draining than it otherwise would have been,” she said. “For your own good, forget what this can do for or against your brand. I won’t announce it until it’s over.
And that wasn’t it. She came back and ended up winning the US Open mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan in her last tour-level match at age 49, one of the best final acts in tennis.
“My thing is, if you like playing and you still get something out of it, then play,” Navratilova said. “Venus played and people say she hurts her legacy. No, those titles are still there.