When is it time to call it a day?
In his monthly 'Words From Wallis' column, Stephen Wallis discusses sporting retirements.
Sportsmen and sportswomen always think they can go on forever. The decision of when to retire is one of the hardest they will ever make. Some have the decision made for them through injury, which can be a blessing and save them the heartache of declining performances. There are others, who, like Sinatra, keep coming back, and cling to the sporting stage.
The Wimbledon championships of 2021 highlighted the dilemma now facing Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Sir Andy Murray. All of them left the centre court at SW19 not knowing if it was a final farewell. A sporting body can only take so much and despite their brilliance, Roger’s knees, Andy’s hip and Serena’s ankles are all suffering from too much wear and tear.
Roger departed in the quarter final but lost his last set 6/0, Andy crashed out in three straight sets in the third round while Serena limped off on the opening day. Three legends who may not be back in 2022.
So what are your options? Do you go out at the top? A few do, like former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain or Peter Sampras. Hussain retired after scoring a Test Century in 2004 at Lord’s while Pistol Pete’s last competitive tennis match was when he won the 2002 US Open.
Probably the most famous of all sad endings would be ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali, who fought on way past his best until his last bout in December 1981 aged 39 when he took his final pummelling against Trevor Berbick. Who would even know when George Best played his last game of professional football? After leaving Old Trafford in 1974
his final English league game was for Bournemouth in 1983.
Age is no longer quite the barrier it was as fitness levels improve.
Frankie Dettori remains the world’s most famous jockey, winning Group 1’s at 50, Phil Mickleson has just won the USPGA at 50 while Jimmy Anderson and Katherine Brunt are both opening the England bowling at 39 and 36 respectively. Try telling them they cannot match and beat their younger competitors.
Ending a sporting career has become easier for many as they retire and move into the media. Gary Lineker, a World Cup Golden Boot winner, is probably more well-known now as a TV star, while Alex Scott, Rio Ferdinand, jockey Ruby Walsh and former England cricket captain Michael Atherton all now work for TV and radio. Mentally, though, the end of a sports player’s career can be tough. For many of them it is all they have known since they left school. The chance to perform at the highest level in front of a large passionate crowd, playing the sport they love must be difficult to let go of. Take that away, and some sports
stars can crumble and there have been some tragedies. Fortunately, the rewards in the 21st century make it easier for the retiree but anonymity can be a painful leveller for some when that day comes.
I spoke to current Wisbech CC captain James Williams, who has already faced one retirement having stood down from playing for Cambridgeshire at the end of the 2019 season. James made his debut for the county in 2003 aged 17.
“It was a massive part of my cricketing life. It made it easier having a family,” said Williams. But being the last man standing from a group of players in a previous successful era of Cambridgeshire cricket, he knew it was time to stand down.
On club cricket at Wisbech CC, James said: “I think it is going to be hard. I think I would find it difficult as it’s been a massive part of my life since I was 13. I still enjoy the Saturday morning buzz to get ready and get off to a game.”
James has played at Harecroft Road with star batsman Gary Freear, 40 next year, virtually all his cricketing life and could not imagine playing without him.
Certainly, amateur wise, losing those familiar faces around you can make a difference. New players don’t know the old team’s stories and you can feel no longer part of the group. You can only reinvent yourself so many times, as a team evolves over time.
“I did wonder after my first shoulder op if I might not come back. I was in a sling for three months. The one benefit for me, I have always been an all-rounder,” said Williams.
Don’t worry Wisbech CC fans, James who is 36 this year, confirmed at the end of our conversation that retirement is not on the cards yet. His bowling days may be behind him although he did have a three-ball spell in this year’s local derby win against March. “I do miss being able to run in and bowl like I used to and I would love to have one more spell to affect a game,” said Williams.
Personally, of the three tennis titans, I cannot see Roger slumping down the rankings and lining up next year while both Serena and Andy give the impression they would like to be back at SW19, but will their bodies allow them?
All of them crave a glorious final farewell to say thank you to their adoring public.
Roger, Sir Andy and Serena have beaten all comers over nearly two decades but the one rival they cannot beat is time. It catches up with everyone. How they deal with it, like all other sporting competitors whether professional or amateur, that is their dilemma.