When life after retirement turns into an empty existence devoid of the challenges they yearn for, a kind of lifestyle they are simply not used to, a majority of the successful athletes feel a COMPELLING urge to return to the arena, writes NANDITA SRIDHAR.

It's not their fault that we misunderstood them. Their claim to fame never really involved any special attachment to the norm, or an abiding ear for critics. To them, the painstakingly constructed rulebook was only meant to be tossed out. They never did things the regular way. If anyone were to blame for grossly misunderstanding that retirement for them is what the dictionary states, it would only have to be us.

It was this misunderstanding that led us into believing that we had seen the last of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, months before Germany 2006. If we were to temporarily turn amnesiac and forget Zidane's head-butting incident, we might have yet another story of a tremendous comeback. We would have loved it even more if it weren't for that astonishing save brought off by Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who stretched every single sinew across his 1.90m frame to tip over a fierce Zidane header. We would also have loved to believe that Zizou didn't lose his head, but used it only for scorching headers.

Notwithstanding the final memories he has left us with, Zidane has become a part of a pattern that we are witnessing in an era of post-retirement comebacks.

Comebacks are neither rare nor a recent phenomenon. However, players courting success after coming out of retirement were hard to find. But not anymore. Zidane, Figo, Martina Navratilova, Michael Jordan and Imran Khan are part of an ever-growing list of sporting legends who have come out of retirement with more than a bang.

There's something that makes these players walk away, only for them to retrace their steps. Though most of them call the shots for most parts of their career, the time of retirement is sometimes coerced into their minds, or ruthlessly decided for them by others. As tennis legend Billie Jean King said, "When athletes reach their thirties, psychologically they think they should quit because everybody keeps telling them they should quit. They start to think they are slowing down because everybody asks, `Are you slowing down?' And pretty soon they're not as motivated as they were before."

Michael Jordan, who announced his retirement only to come back into the game almost as many times as he had been nominated the Most Valuable Player, went through similar feelings. "I tried to be the best basketball player I could be. I've had a great time. I'm just going to enjoy life and do things I've never done before," he said when he first announced his retirement.

What most successful athletes hope for on retirement is a quiet, blissful life. But that soon turns into an empty existence devoid of the competition they yearn for. A quiet walk down the road just doesn't match up to hearing thousands screaming on seeing their hero walk into the arena. What should be a life of peace turns into a mundane existence — a kind of lifestyle they are completely out of touch with.

What finally erupts out of a mixture of restlessness, the thirst for competition, the need for flow of adrenalin, the confidence that they still have something to give and the inability to do anything else after years of living in sporting limelight, is the urge to come back out of retirement and embrace fresh challenges and succeed once again. For those used to riding obstacles, this is simply another hurdle to cross in their quest for sporting immortality. And they are as serious when they come back as they were before.

"I did not come back to play the clown," said Zidane before the 2006 World Cup.

"Now that I am here, it is to go to the end! It is to win. I feel that deep down within me, and I know that if we all feel the same way, with the same intensity, we can go all the way," he added.

Once the players come out of retirement, the very thought that this is their second chance and that more chances might not come begging, spurs them on.

And some not only surprise others but also themselves, especially the way in which they overcome obstacles in their second coming. Jordan, for instance, endured a playoff defeat before he bettered Magic Johnson's record. However, in the process, he won his fourth finals MVP.

Forever the standout, Navratilova rose above her peers with her serve-and-volley game despite being surrounded by a number of baseliners during her time. Again, on her comeback, she was outstanding. Being the sole wrinkled woman in a circuit teeming with pimpled girls was no easy task.

Navratilova did stutter, but she managed to equal Billie Jean's record of 20 Wimbledon titles, when she won the mixed doubles title with Leander Paes in 2003.

In Germany 2006, Zidane almost relived Korea-Japan 2002, but his team sneaked past the first round, providing the French master with the chance to show what even a gentle caress can do to a football.

Imran Khan, who went into some sort of a semi-retirement after 1987, completed his comeback by leading Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup in Australia-New Zealand.

It was a great achievement, especially considering that Pakistan had got off to a miserable start in the tournament.

These sporting colossuses did eventually retire from their sport, but it wasn't before they felt they had given everything they had, and their resources had completely been drained.

But have they all really called it a day? One never knows, for there might still be that urge to come back.

"I won't miss it (Wimbledon); I'll be here. I'll be back. I just won't be playing. I think I'll just miss the competition, and having to perform under pressure," said Navratilova after 2006 Wimbledon.

So, the next time your eyes are saturated with images of a player bidding goodbyes, signing endless autographs and flashing seamless smiles at lensmen, fear not that you are watching the last of your hero. For all you know, he could make a comeback.

The legendary boxer George Foreman spent a decade as an ordained minister in a church after his retirement, only to come back and win despite being in his 40s.

A few years in the wilderness, and you never know when those steps will be retraced.