On how to retire

After his loss at the Rotterdam event, Andy Murray was mandatorily asked whether he was considering retirement, in view that his results of late have been less than stellar. Murray did not appreciate the line of questioning but he still answered, affirming that no such plans are in his mind at the moment.

The question of retirement is one that any great player has to face sooner or later. In a sense, it is a compliment to their achievements, as the “run of the mill” players do not get asked when they will finally call it quits; Giles Simon, a fine player indeed but one that does not make headlines about his tennis (he has achieved that due to other reasons) recently decided to take a hiatus because, as he said, “the heart was not into it” (meaning tennis) and reporters did not stampede to his door to ask him the retirement conundrum. Only the players that have achieved certain status get to be asked this question.

So, when should a player retire? What should be the general guideline?

There are two components to this process; the first one is financial. Conchita Martinez, as she was also approaching her farewell, was asked the same question and gave a masterful reply to the inquirer: Show me another job in which I can make $300,000 a year doing something I love, and I will retire (paraphrasing). Therefore, the finances of the decision could in theory be left to an accountant but there is no need for that, in the case of Murray. He and another player that has seen a dip in his results, Stan Wawrinka, must be pulling down a low seven figures salary from endorsements and sponsors. Both men are still well signed and, if you add the earnings from a full year of playing on the tour, walking away from such an amount of money must not be easy. Sure, Murray is a man with earnings of more than $60 Million on court and therefore some people may say that he really does not need the money, but that is easier said that done. If it is the finances that keep you in the game, so be it. In tennis, apart from the occasional Wild Card, if you make it into the draw you did so on merit alone. Stealing from a baby’s mouth you are not.

Which leads us to the second issue, and which at the time went by inadvertently from Martinez’ statement: “Doing something I love”. Martinez has shown that her commitment to her sport goes beyond simply winning one Wimbledon. She could be retired in Spain, basking in the glory of that sole victory (worth any number of Tapas in a country that is rabidly fanatic about sports) but she has chosen to continue in the tour, as a coach. And one has to wonder what are the reasons for Murray and Wawrinka, just as examples, to remain competitive and stay in the tour. After all, both men have undergone recent surgeries to repair their bodies and are in the group of players that “have nothing to prove”; they have won Slams, have achieved a high ranking in an era dominated by the three best players ever, and have been able to show that they deserve to be in a court with the Big Three, when the occasion rises. So, why stay? What keeps them going?

Needless to say, what comes next is speculation. Neither man has been asked about this but I suspect that Murray and Wawrinka remain playing because of the most basic feeling, the one stated by Martinez: show them something equally lucrative THAT THEY LOVE, and they might leave. But the issue is that tennis, for all its competitiveness and cut-throat nature, is an adventure all by itself when you are on court. During any single given match, any player will be fortunate to hit a lovely shot here, reach a fantastic other there, achieve a small, singular victory in an execution that leaves you with that feeling of satisfaction that is seldom found somewhere else. Even for those of us that continue to play long after our physical peak, and which have meager talents measured in a rodents’ scale, every time we go on court a feeling of satisfaction can be achieved. If the measurement of retirement would be that once you reach your peak you simply call it quits, the average age of retirement for most players would be around age 24, when they would realize (and it must have happened to many) that winning MS1000’s was out of the question, much less Grans Slams. Instead, the challenge must be internal and must be set in accordance to one’s own expectations and goals. Given THIS set of conditions and THIS set of skills, what is the maximum I can do? How much can I still achieve?

Jimmy Connors, a man that can be accused of many misconducts on court but never of not giving it all in it, made a point during his induction to the Hall of Fame of stating that, although he was being inducted and the rules stipulated that you had to be retired from the tour for a minimum of five years, he had never retired officially; he was, and likely to this day still, a tennis player. How could he retire if the mentality and the passion was still there? In a sense, asking players like Murray, Wawrinka or, in the WTA, Venus, when will they retire is journalistic laziness; it misses the point completely. Asking them why they stay still only scratches the surface. Asking them what they expect of themselves, what goals they are aiming for within the match, what new skills or shots they are aiming to acquire (or reclaim) and how they feel about who they are NOW on a court, and what they can do NOW when playing, would be much more enlightening. In a very clear sense, asking them, in truly inquiring fashion, why they DON’T retire is the better question. Surely the answer would tell us much more, enough for those of us that never retired because we never reached that stage to go out once more on a Saturday afternoon, ready to give it one more try at learning that perfect form forehand. Their answer would be, most likely, inspirational.