Monday, September 28, 2009

The athletic sabbatical

So of course the tennis world is all atwitter with Justine Henin's not-so-surprising announcement last week that she would be returning to tennis.
And so begins an even more fervent discussion of the player sabbatical or the non-retirement or the mental break or the recharge--whatever you want to call it.
It's an important discussion to have given the recognized intensity of the sport. (Both the men's and women's tour are making concerted efforts to reduce the playing schedules to offer more down time to players.) But the concept of the sabbatical--an official one--is not one on the table at either tour's next organizational meeting apparently. This means that the current practice of retiring and staging a comeback remains the only option for players who need a break.
Pam Shriver finds it wrong--of course. She told USA Today:
I'm tired of them announcing retirement when what they are really doing is leaving the tour for a period of time.
Well, Pammy, what choice do they have? When you don't announce a retirement, a la Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles for example, people hound you about your return and speculate about your mental and physical state. You enter the "where are they now?" gossip category that commentators love to talk about. Of course now that there have been all these un-retirements, the hounding may include those that believed they were once safely ensconced in retirement.
I also believe that many of these people believed they were truly done with the sport. Clijsters was clear throughout the final years of her playing career that her life plan did not include tennis after a certain age. Henin's retirement was a shock but she seemed happy to not be playing tennis, to have time for herself, to engage in other non-tennis activities. She was one of the most tennis-focused women on the tour when she was there. That can be exhausting, especially when you have to deal with people talking about your faily life all the time as well (her estrangement from her family, her marriage and subsequent divorce at a young age). Lindsay Davenport enjoyed her brief return after giving birth to her first child.
And let's not forget that this is not a tennis-only phenomenon. How many times has Brett Favre retired now? And of course there is Michael Jordan who tried his hand at baseball and then came back to basketball after initially retiring.
Tennis just doesn't offer much wiggle room. The female soccer players who take time off to have children don't seem to have similar issues. Kristine Lilly never said she was retiring. Neither did Christie Rampone or a myriad of other players who have had children in the prime of their playing careers. They have their children, they set a schedule for their return, they train, they stay involved with their respective teams, they come back. The same occurs in women's golf. Of course these are all women who had babies.
The mental break that Henin apparently took (and Hingis too though she was also plagued by injury) is likely not as acceptable given the "mental toughness" that is prized in sport and thought to be some naturally occurring gift despite the good money sports psychologists are bringing in to treat these high-level athletes.
In other words, there will be more on this issue.

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