Henin’s, Sorenstam’s Recent Retirements Begs the Question: When Is It Time to Leave?


Even seeing the word in print bewilders me.

Given that today a quarter of the MIT undergraduate population is graduating, retirement discussions may seem a bit out of place. Regardless of the path seniors have chosen for their next act, graduation is typically a time of new beginnings, not finite endings. So why am I pondering retirement at the ripe old age of 20?

It’s not because I’m having my first mid-life (quarter-life?) crisis, and it’s not because I have creaky knees. It’s because the world’s best women’s tennis player, Justine Henin, issued a retirement announcement “effective immediately” on May 14. It’s because golfer Annika Sorenstam gave her career’s-end notice a day prior.

Normally, hearing that an athlete has retired affects me for a day or so. I may Google the player’s achievements and team affiliations. If it’s a player I particularly liked, I’ll mourn the loss of pass-catching abilities or dazzling serves for a little while, and then move on with my life.

However, the recent set of retirements has had a lasting effect. Why do Henin and Sorenstam’s goodbyes give me so much pause? Probably because 25-year-old Henin is just five years older than I am and just a few years older than those graduating today. Sorenstam is a comparatively ancient 37, but still quite young by AARP standards. I know graduate students older than Henin who have barely begun their academic careers as researchers, professors, or both. It is difficult to think about leaving a profession just a few years into it.

To be fair, this is not a completely unexpected result because athletics generally have a shorter shelf life than academics. In contrast, though, there are the Brett Favres and Julio Lugos of the world, who compete past what we consider their primes. This leaves us with an interesting dichotomy: At what point does a person reach the Goldilocks standard for retirement — not too early, not too late, but just right?

We alternately lauded and castigated Favre for leaving the Green Bay Packers hanging as he experienced his yearly “Should I retire?” discussion. Lauded him for his courage and age-defying skills, castigated him for playing a young man’s position and repeatedly leaving his team hanging. But his desire to play kept burning, and though the results weren’t always stellar, he stood by his decision to continue competing. He was rewarded in 2007 with a stellar supporting cast, culminating with the National Football Conference championship game. Before the 2007 season, though, the naysayers said that he had already overstayed his welcome. If the Packers had been closer to Humpty Dumpty than a Cinderella story, wouldn’t we all have belittled Favre for refusing to let go?

We watched Jerome Bettis win Super Bowl XL with the Pittsburgh Steelers in February of 2006, fulfilling his goal of winning of a championship before retiring. We called it a feel-good story, a celebration of his dedication and perseverance. We feted his decision to go out on top, rather than stick around and sink into mediocrity.

Likewise, we cheered as David Robinson finished his farewell tour, the 2002–2003 National Basketball Association season, with a second championship. We said it was a fitting way for a classy player to finish his career. But if they hadn’t won championships and had been part of a sub-.500 team, would we have said that they deserved better? What if “better” was simply the result from last year? Would we expect them to play another year, just to erase the bitter taste of an unsuccessful season?

We watched Tiki Barber make a stunning retirement announcement in February 2007 and were confused by his choice. We couldn’t decide if we should applaud his decision to leave the game without lasting physical damage, or boo his call to leave the game without a team championship. We thought that it would be hard for Tiki to last on the sidelines while his twin brother Ronde continued to suit up on Sundays. But what if he had stayed with the Giants another year, enough to grab a Super Bowl ring in February 2008? Would we then have accepted his decision to retire as reasonable?

In the past few weeks, I have read commentaries about how Henin and Sorenstam’s early retirements are the result of a gendered society; of the increasing difficulty to keep up with stronger, taller, younger versions of themselves; of the weighty expectations they faced daily. With all due respect, however, retirement is more of a personal, psychological, and physical decision than any one of these phenomenons. Both Henin and Sorenstam dealt with serious injuries and illnesses, and those take their toll on both the athlete and the person behind the gritty confidence. At some point, battling both your opponent and your own self-doubt, mental fatigue, and physical pain is no longer worth it.

It’s a lesson to other athletes — and the rest of society — that Henin, Sorenstam, Bettis, Robinson, and Barber chose to leave when the sport ceased being fun or worthwhile for them. After all, that is the prevailing reason that people everywhere leave their jobs when they have mid-life crises: They simply don’t enjoy the work anymore. And for athletes who have basically been professionals-in-training since the age of seven, particularly in golf and tennis, retiring at 25 means they’ve invested 18 solid years into their work.

The take-home message is that these pro athletes left the game precisely when they were ready, confident that they had finished reaping the benefits of the sport, and sure that one more title or another million dollars was not worth the sacrifice of travel, long hours, and loneliness. Standing across the court or green from someone who takes unabashed joy in pounding a backhand or sinking a putt, knowing that showing the same emotion or passion would be nothing more than an act, would be devastating.

Sure, we may bemoan the fact that we can’t watch such athletes rule the courts and fields anymore. But it’s better to remember them as they were at or near the top of their games — dominant, steely, powerful — than to remember watered-down, injured, disinterested shadows of players who didn’t know when to say goodbye. Given the choice, I would rather a player sacrifice a few years of good results than slip into mediocrity because she wouldn’t admit her skills were declining or her passion was gone. Growing accustomed to quarterfinal finishes instead of tournament victories is a steep and unwelcome learning curve for both spectator and player.

Of course, there’s always the Michael Jordan retirement for those who are on the fence: Retirement is not a binding or irreversible decision. Besides, spectators always root for a comeback.