In tennis, as in life, all good things come to an end: a deep run by an inspired qualifier at a major, a cherished stint in the world’s Top 10 and, ultimately, a career as a professional tennis player.
Last week, Li Na announced that she would be stepping away from the game after over a decade as a pro – an announcement that, while naturally shocking, wasn’t exactly surprising given her nearly two-month absence from the tour and various rumors circulating on social media. Less than 24 hours later, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 18-year-old Ashleigh Barty – former junior Wimbledon champ and highly touted Australian prospect – would also be stepping away from the game indefinitely.
Apart from their shared timeliness in announcing their departure from the WTA Tour, both Li and Barty have something else in common: both played and lost their last Tour match to the same player: Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova.
Since 2009, plenty of notable players have made their exit from the game. Sometimes, as in Li’s case, calling it quits isn’t planned before they play their last match. Other players, like Kim Clijsters in 2012, announce their last tournament days or weeks (or months or years) before they play it. And some prefer to surprise and consequently devastate the whole tennis world right after a match (cheers, Marion Bartoli and Elena Dementieva).
This compilation of former Top 20 players and a few other noteworthy stars reveals a few trends in the retirement narratives of the world’s best women’s tennis professionals:
|YEAR||PLAYER||FINAL OPPONENT||FINAL TOURNAMENT|
|2008||Lindsay Davenport||Marion Bartoli||US Open|
|2009||Amélie Mauresmo||Aleksandra Wozniak||US Open|
|2009||Ai Sugiyama||Nadia Petrova||Tokyo|
|2009||Nathalie Dechy||Raluca Olaru||Wimbledon|
|2010||Elena Dementieva||Francesca Schiavone||Doha (WTA Finals)|
|2010**||Nicole Vaidisova||Heather Watson||(ITF) Hammond|
|2011||Patty Schnyder||Sorana Cirstea||French Open|
|2011||Sybille Bammer||Yvonne Meusburger||Bad Gastein|
|2011||Justine Henin||Svetlana Kuznetsova||Australian Open|
|2011||Alicia Molik||Nadia Petrova||Australian Open|
|2011||Alona Bonderenko||Bojana Jovanovski||Moscow|
|2011*||Karolina Sprem||Heather Watson||Estoril (Q)|
|2012||Kim Clijsters||Laura Robson||US Open|
|2012||Gisela Dulko||Mirjana Lucic-Baroni||Wimbledon (Q)|
|2013||Anna Chakvetadze||Galina Voskoboeva||Tashkent|
|2013||Marion Bartoli||Simona Halep||Cincinnati|
|2013||Ágnes Szávay||Greta Arn||US Open|
|2013||Iveta Melzer||Coco Vandeweghe||French Open|
|2014||Dinara Safina||Julia Goerges||Madrid (2011)|
|2014||María José Martínez Sánchez||Kiki Bertens||Acapulco (2013)|
|2014||Li Na||Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova||Wimbledon|
*Year the player retired before a very short-lived/unsuccessful comeback.
**Player is currently in the process of making a comeback.
Save for two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Nicole Vaidisova (currently embarking on a comeback), who had left at a lowly ITF tournament citing a lack of interest in the game, most top players play their final match at a major or other top tournament, likely due to the sentimentality of a large event. Such was the case of Clijsters, a three-time US Open champ, and Lindsay Davenport, the 1998 winner at her home major. More cynically, retiring at a major also supplies a player with one last big paycheck to kick-start their post-tennis lives, however relaxing or scandalous it might be.
Players like former top doubles stalwart Ai Sugiyama and noted Serena-kryptonite Sybille Bammer chose to leave the game at tournaments closest to home: Tokyo and Bad Gastein, respectively. Dinara Safina played her last match in Madrid, the site of her short career’s biggest title, and officially retired from the game at the same tournament with a sentimental ceremony worthy of a former World No. 1.
From the chart, it’s clear that Zahlavova-Strycova isn’t the only serial career-ender. An unlikely candidate for such a dubious mantle is the soft-spoken Brit and current Top 50 player Heather Watson. Before her comeback just last week, Watson – still a teenager at the time – sent Vaidisova into retirement in 2010. A year later, Croatia’s Karolina Sprem played her last match against Watson, losing to her in the qualification rounds of an WTA International tournament in Estoril, Portugal.
Armed with a louder game than Watson, Julia Goerges has a longer list of career-ending scalps than the chart implies. Stephanie Dubois of Canada, who just announced her retirement a few weeks ago, also played her final match against the big-hitting German.
Nadia Petrova is among the most decorated in retiring multiple players: she defeated Sugiyama at home in Tokyo and Australian Olympic bronze medalist Alicia Molik at her home major. But a more interesting career note can be found during the Russian’s 2003 breakthrough. As a 20-year-old, she not only beat 9-time Grand Slam winner Monica Seles in the first round of the 2003 French Open in the American’s last career match, but also beat the former World No. 1 in her second-to-last career appearance, a retirement in Rome that signaled the beginning of the end. With Petrova on a break from the game and nearing the end of her athletic prime, it seems unlikely that she’ll add a fourth player to her already impressive resume of retirees.
Had these players won those matches against their career conquerors, it’s hard to say whether or not they would have retired as and when they did — one would have to look back to 1989 for a player who ended their career on a winning note: Chris Evert over Conchita Martinez in a Fed Cup rubber. Yet whether you’re Chris Evert or the other 99% of players whose careers end with a loss, the fact remains that while all great sporting careers come to an end, life does indeed go on.