Ending on a high

Michael Phelps, with a silver trophy, after being honoured as the most decorated Olympian at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Games in London.-AP

N. Sudarshan looks at some of the legends who quit the arena at the peak of their careers.

In his brilliant book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, English cricketer turned author Ed Smith, discusses at length what keeps players going well past their prime. Is it a sense of belonging or is it money? Or is it a never-ending love for the sport which gave them everything? In a more recent article in ESPNCricinfo, he asks: “what motivates them? How can great athletes, who once dominated their sports, appear to settle for a more subordinate role? Or do they still feel that glories lie around the corner? Can matinee idols become supporting actors? Can gods become men?”

How many great champions have actually ended their careers as they have started: as champions? And how many after biting the bullet initially have proved that the love for the art form is too enticing to hold back and staged prolonged and less than successful comebacks? Pete Sampras, Michael Phelps and some more fall into the first category, while Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher and many more into the second.

Here is a sneak peek into some from the first group.

Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf & Pete Sampras:

He turned pro when he was all of 16 years and retired a decade later at the height of his prowess. After five Wimbledon crowns on the trot (1976-80), ‘Ice Borg’ lost two Grand Slam finals to John McEnroe in 1981 (Wimbledon and U.S. Open). In 1982 he played in only one tournament and left the game on January 22, 1983.

“I know I could play another five years,” Borg told the New York Times. “So to make this step, I wanted to be 101 percent sure before I decided. To retire at 26, that's very, very young. Just telling the simple truth that I don’t enjoy it, I’m not motivated and I need to try other things. To take that step is difficult for a lot of people.”

Like Borg, German Steffi Graf too retired early after winning her sixth French title and her 22nd major in 1999 aged 30. Again, similar to Borg, a case of struggling to remain motivated while still near the top.

‘Pistol Pete’, as he was fondly called, had gone eight majors without a title when he entered the 2002 U.S. Open. Seven matches later he proudly held his fifth United States crown after defeating his arch-rival Andre Agassi. That was to be his last competitive match as he called it quits a year later.

Mark Spitz & Michael Phelps:

The 1972 Munich Olympics is a watershed event in swimming history. A 22-year-old American Jew, Mark Spitz, won all his seven events, a record that would stay for 36 long years before another American Michael Phelps would shatter it in 2008 by winning eight. Immediately after, Spitz retired shocking one and all.

Phelps, after the monumental high of winning every race he entered in 2008, added four more golds in 2012 to become the most decorated Olympian of all-time — 22 medals, 18 of them gold. As he had announced months before London 2012, he gave up his Speedo once the Games ended.

“Being able to be the most decorated was something we really wanted,” he told Los Angeles Times. “To be the best and to do something nobody else has ever done was something that was there. There will be no more staring at that black line for four hours every day. I’m looking forward to moving on to the next chapter of my life.”

Rocky Marciano:

He was rejected from the Chicago Cubs’ farm system in baseball as they felt his right arm lacked power. But Rocky Marciano was destined for greatness elsewhere — inside the boxing ring. A 49-0 record as a pro, to this day he remains the only heavyweight boxing champion to ever retire undefeated. He called it a day when he was 31.

“I didn’t get hurt physically while fighting,” he said. “My physical condition has nothing to do with my retirement. My lonesome family convinced me that I should quit while I’m still in good shape.”

Jim Brown:

Not many will leave a sport that pays a whopping $60,000 a season, that too in the 1960s. But Jim Brown decided to after nine seasons in National Football League with the Cleveland Browns, aged 30. In his final season he rushed for 1,544 yards on 289 carries, scored 21 Touch Downs, and was named Most Valuable Player. In fact he led the NFL in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons and quit as its all-time leading rusher.

Eric Cantona:

He was bought by Manchester United for a paltry sum of just over a million pounds, but he went on to become one of the giants of the English league. He never represented France, his home country, in the World Cup, but still his iconic status remains unquestioned.

He won four league titles in five years, including two domestic doubles, before retiring at the peak of his professional career in 1997 aged 30.