Bowing out, bouncing back


Michael Schumacher and Justine Henin are the most recent of sportspersons to explore the comeback trail. What impels retirement and what causes its retraction? An analysis by Kunal Diwan.

The question of identity is a tricky one. There was a young lad, analysed at length by Sigmund Freud, who spent his entire life thinking he was a steam engine. Then there was this charwoman of Westmorland who took to dressing up as Lady Diana — hair spray and all — considering herself to be a doppelganger of sorts of the English princess.

While there is no documented proof of a sportsperson assuming the role of a locomotive or even deceased royalty, athletes suffer from a dilemma of identity that is uniquely their own, that of delineating their godlier, media-generated persona from the humanistic, ‘real’ one. And it may well be on this nascent identity crisis that another quandary — that of retiring, or, more accurately, staying retired — situates itself.

Like a senior bureaucrat who’s granted power and pelf as long as he is in position, or a gifted surgeon whose two-worded prefix formulates his entire existence for a majority, the sportsperson is a function and a product of the time he spent doing what he did best.

Revered and put on a pedestal during his career, he is inclined to allow his sense of self to be defined entirely by what he does on the field. Sometimes — and these cases form the high-risk subset — a sporting identity tramples over all other personal or social points of reference a player might have accumulated through the years.

And when retirement pulls the rug from beneath his feet, the after-taste is not pleasant; it’s worse, in fact, coming as it does after a lifetime of excesses. Though the excesses might have been excessively fulfilling, they still don’t make the athlete any less immune to craving periodically for his glory years spent catering to the voracious appetite of the media and public.

Many after retiring continue to hang on to the fading symbols of a successful career. This is why cyclists continue to shave their legs long after superannuation has rolled in; or why graying Major League has-beens spend an inordinately long time polishing their engraved silverware; or why some involved in individual sports attempt comebacks, after convincing themselves to be not yet past their use-by date, into the arena that made them the worshipped, formidable creatures they were during their peak.

American boxer and serial comeback artist George Foreman, Swedish iceman Bjorn Borg, American swimmer Dara Torres, Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis, cancer survivor and cyclist Lance Armstrong, basketball legend Michael Jordan all belong to the last category in having returned from retirement for another shot at glory. Foreman’s and Torres’ returns were spectacular to say the least, Armstrong acquitted himself well with a third place in the Tour de France — a race he used to own — and Hingis had a middling second fling.

Borg’s was the strangest case. He left at 27, on top of the tennis world, and dabbled in fashion, marriage and divorce before a financial crisis compelled him to return, at 35, armed with an anachronistic wooden racket in 1991. It goes without saying that the five-time Wimbledon champion lost 12 straight matches and then went scrounging for pennies to the veteran’s tour.

The sci-fi sounding 2010 now promises to take the case of un-retirements further, blessed as it has been by the return of two more big names who decided that enough was not enough.

After Belgian super mom Kim Clijsters lit up the latter half of the year past with her triumph in the U.S. Open — her third tournament since returning — this year will showcase the second comings of Michael Schumacher and Justine Henin.

Now 27, Henin’s retirement in 2008 sent shock waves through the tennis world. Then ranked number 1, she requested the Women’s Tennis Association to erase her name from the rankings, saying she “felt no sadness” and that time away “will be like a release from a game I had focused on for twenty years”.

Fifteen months on, Henin is back, albeit with a more elaborate statement of return than the terse “I’m back” Michael Jordan issued in 1993. The Belgian has stated her desire for continuing till the 2012 London Summer Olympics, and one area of focus for her is likely to be Wimbledon, a title missing in her collection of seven Grand Slams.

Arguably or, at the very least, statistically, the greatest driver in Formula One history Michael Schumacher, 41, has virtually nothing missing from his list of achievements. And this makes the case of his return a tougher nut to crack. Though the German’s plans of replacing the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari last year met with a stiff neck, his alliance with Mercedes this year appears good to go.

“After my retirement at the end of 2006 I was very happy,” said the seven-time World Champion, “It served me extremely well to be quiet for those three years. It really is as if my batteries are fully loaded. I can notice how the prickle is returning, and how motivated I am because I am so much looking forward to this competition.”

Schumacher’s situation is comparable to Niki Lauda’s return in 1982, at age 33, and Nigel Mansell’s comeback in 1994, at age 41, that was cut short because he couldn’t fit in the driver’s seat. For the record, the oldest Formula One champion is Juan Manuel Fangio, who was 46 when he won his fifth title.

The German has nothing to prove, except possibly the same thing that George Foreman set out to prove in 1987 — after a ten-year absence from boxing — that turning 40 was not a “death sentence”.

In a high-risk sport such as Formula One, where a transient error of judgement can involve life and death, maybe it was the desire to dispel aspersions of age-related slowing down that influenced Schumacher’s decision to return.

Often supposed to inhabit the same exclusive social stratosphere as elite athletes, movie stars have the relative luxury of age and chronology not being as pertinent to their cause as to the sportsperson’s. Once glycation sets in and crows feet take over, aging performers can choose to tumble down two paths of equally limited resistance. They can either set up a surreptitious rendezvous with a celebrity surgeon functioning out of a forbiddingly-expensive Swiss spa, or decide, for good, to forsake playing the alpha male /female in favour of more ‘challenging’ character roles that demand a touch of wizened salt in an all-pepper toupee.

Star athletes have it tougher. There is only so much allowed in sport as far as medical performance enhancement is concerned. And although veterans’ leagues exist across disciplines, they’re a poor substitute for the packed-stands, multi-million milieu of the real thing.

Different athletes, thus, look to different places to fill the void of retirement. The lucky ones reach for friends and family; the more intellectually inclined to broadening their understanding of a world of which they have yet experienced only a privileged fraction; the savvy pragmatists to administration and coaching, which, to them, is a path as steeped in sound logic as Panini’s grammar ever was.

Only a handful of retired stars choose to play the game again. And maybe the explanation is simpler than what you and I — with this exhaustive repository of sports psychology between us — think.

Asked on his return after a ten-month exile what he planned to do when he had unstrung his racquet permanently, Carlos Moya thought for a while, rubbed his chin, and looked totally spaced out.

“I don’t know. In my head I will always be a tennis player.”