WIMBLEDON, England — Most professional tennis players retire in their mid-30s. But last week, there was Serena Williams, almost 41, battling a competitor just over half her age for more than three hours. at Wimbledon.
Venus Williams is also here. She played mixed doubles, with duct tape on her right knee and not much strength in her step at 42. Roger Federer, who hasn’t played since limping away from Wimbledon last year, is looking to return to the tennis tour in September, when he will be 41. Rafael Nadal is threatening a deep run at Wimbledon and targeting the Grand Slam at 36 after a medical procedure deadened the nerves in his troublesome left foot.
To varying degrees, the biggest names in tennis continue. Why is it so difficult, after your best years, to leave the stage and relax with your 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 years old. Tom Brady can’t stay away from football. Regular workers go through life believing that retirement is the end game. Not so with professional athletes.
It’s not just advances in fitness and nutrition that keep their bodies in the game. The changing nature of the sports and celebrity business is conspiring to keep stars much longer than in the past. But there is also another element that has remained constant through the generations.
“I understand 100 percent why they want to keep going,” said Martina Navratilova, a long-time No. 1 and 18-time major singles champion who retired at age 37 in 1994, returned to playing doubles and didn’t retire for good until she was almost 50.
“You really appreciate it and realize how lucky you are to be out there doing what we do,” Navratilova said. “It’s a drug. It is a very legal drug that many people would like to have but cannot get.”
Serena Williams exited Wimbledon in the first round for the second year in a row, far from her best shape and out of breath going down the stretch. She and Federer are soon faced with being unranked in the sport they dominated for decades. Venus Williams decided at the last minute to play mixed doubles at Wimbledon. But there have been no announcements about exit strategies; there are no target dates in the completion dates.
“You never know where I’m going to show up,” Venus Williams said Friday, before she and Jamie Murray lost to Alicia Barnett and Jonny O’Mara in a third-set tiebreaker in the round of 16 on Sunday.
Earlier on Sunday, at a ceremony on 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 “one more time” before retiring.
It’s a new kind of limbo: the great champions are past their prime but aren’t quite ready to call it a day, while outsiders speculate on when the call will come. Nadal, who has generated a lot of talk about his retirement and said he came close to retiring just a couple of weeks ago due to chronic foot pain, understands the public’s search for clarity. Famous athletes “become a part of so many people’s lives,” he said after advancing to the third round at Wimbledon.
Even Nadal said he felt unsettled after seeing his friend Woods become a part-time golfer. “That is 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 business incentives to keep it that way. Official retirement doesn’t just end a playing career. You can terminate an endorsement contract or endorsement deal and reduce a star’s visibility.
“It’s usually black and white that when you announce your retirement, that clearly gives the company the right to terminate,” said Tom Ross, a longtime American tennis agent.
But there are exceptions, Ross said, and late-career champions of the stature of Federer and Serena Williams often have deals that give them security even if they pull out before the deal expires. Federer’s 10-year clothing contract with Uniqlo is one example.
He, like Serena Williams, also has the luxury of time.
Almost any other unranked tennis player would not be able to secure regular entry to top tournaments if he decided to continue. But Federer and Williams have access to wild cards with their rumor-generating cache and thus get to pick their spots.
Nike, as Federer and a few others have discovered, is unwilling to commit a lot of money to superstars nearing retirement, favoring active athletes with longer tracks. But Mike Nakajima, a former Nike director of tennis, said Williams, still sponsored by Nike, was in a unique position. She has her own building on the Nike campus.
“Their building is bigger than Portland International Airport,” Nakajima said. She added: “She’s had so many different things in her hands, so many interests, so many passions, that I think in many ways she won’t matter when she stops. Serena will always be Serena.”
This week, EleVen by Venus Williams, her lifestyle brand, started an all-white Wimbledon collection that was unaffected by the fact that Williams was playing at Wimbledon, albeit only in mixed doubles, after more 10 months off the field. route.
“Just inspired by Serena,” said Venus Williams.
Navratilova, like many in the game, believes that Venus and Serena Williams will retire together when the time comes. If it comes The benefits of formally announcing retirement are few: a temporary increase in publicity and an end to random drug testing. In some cases, she can start the clock on her pension or make her eligible to be elected to a sports Hall of Fame.
Retirement is perhaps more of a ritual than a necessity. John McEnroe, for his part, never officially retired, a technicality that, in his case, allowed him to keep earning more for a while on some existing contracts.
“Well, look how well retirement worked out for Tom Brady; he got a lot of attention and then it was, ‘Oh, I changed my mind.’ OK!” Navratilova said with a laugh. She added, “Are you asking a doctor or a lawyer how much longer you’re going to keep practicing? People put thoughts in your head that might not be there otherwise.”
Federer has been hearing questions about his retirement ever since he finally won the French Open in 2009, completing his set of singles titles at each of the four Grand Slam events at age 27. Venus Williams, who went through a mid-career crash of her own partially related to an autoimmune disorder, has also been listening to them for more than a decade.
“When it’s the last one, I’ll let you know,” he said at Wimbledon last year.
Here she is, back for more, as her little sister, although perhaps not even the Williamses know how much more. Navratilova does not recommend giving too much advance notice. When she announced that 1994 would be her last season, she regretted it.
“If I had to do it over again, I definitely wouldn’t say anything, because it was exhausting; it was much more emotionally draining than it would have been otherwise,” she said. “For your own good, forget what you can do for or against your brand. I wouldn’t announce it until that’s it.”
And it wasn’t. He came back and ended up winning the US Open mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan in his last real tour-level match at age 49, one of the greatest final acts in tennis.
“My thing is, if you enjoy playing and you really get something out of it, then play,” Navratilova said. “Venus has been playing around and people are saying that she is damaging her legacy. No, those titles are still there.”