In the future, we will collectively regard the year 2020 as an extraordinary aberration in history – a selection of 365 days of almost uniform negativity. And yet, for a tiny minority, it has actually been a year of unexpected positivity – a life-affirming jolt that reminds us that we should do more of the things we love, where possible, and less of the things we don’t.
That has certainly been the mindset that has swept over Julia Görges, the 32-year-old tennis professional who announced her retirement in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The former Wimbledon finalist and seven-time ranking event winner spoke about the enlightenment she had felt since going public with the decision. “I can feel it now on my body,” the German said. “It’s less tension, less pain because the mental stress which affects your body and affects your mind a lot, this has gone away.”
It would be hard to claim that Görges was in her prime at the time of her retirement – her ranking had dropped to 45, partially due to not playing due to COVID travel fears, but she remained a dangerous player on the WTA Tour who had the potential to go very deep in events. As such, we can add Görges to the list of sporting stars who have retired at the top of their chosen profession, rather than slowly fading away. But who are the leading athletes to have retired in their prime?
Other Leading Athletes that Retired in Their Prime
Some stars completely transcend their sport – they are known worldwide and their sphere of influence goes far beyond their day job.
Youngsters all over the planet were begging their parents for a pair of Nike Air Jordans without really knowing anything about the man who inspired them – basketball legend, Michael Jordan. That’s partly due to the fact that MJ retired from the sport aged just 30, by which time he’d won three NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls and been named the Most Valuable Player on a further three occasions.
But Jordan would suffer from heartache in 1993 when his father was murdered, and a tough time also saw the then 30-year-old allegedly spiral into gambling debts. He spent the initial phase of his retirement trying to become a baseball pro, signing for the Boston White Sox in 1994.
Alas, he had unfinished business in basketball and Jordan returned to the Bulls in 1995, claiming another three NBA Titles thereafter. He retired again in 1999, before returning in 2001 for a stint at the Washington Wizards – donating his entire salary to the victims of the September 11 atrocities.
For some, success comes at too young an age. By the time he turned 26, Bjorn Borg had already won an astonishing eleven Grand Slam titles, and became an icon on and off the court – he was the housewives’ favourite for his Scandinavian good lucks and flowing blonde hair, and for a while the richest tennis player in history and the first to pass $1 million in a single season’s earnings.
But underneath it all, Borg longed for a different life and so took the remarkable decision to retire in January 1983 – still months shy of his 27th birthday. Like many stars who have arguably retired too soon, Borg announced a comeback in 1991, but sadly, he barely won a game and disappeared quietly from tennis in 1993.
The age of 37 is quite an old one for an athlete in a physically demanding sport to still be active, and especially one where the object is to avoid being punched in the face. Maybe it wasn’t a huge surprise when Floyd Mayweather retired at such a vintage then, and leaving his record at the time at 49-0 suggested a man not allected with OCD or concerned about numerical symmetry.
He initially retired at the age of 30 back in 2007, but couldn’t resist the lure of the fight game – and cold hard cash, perhaps, given that his nickname was ‘Money’ – battling on for nine more fights before calling time on his incredible career in September 2015.
Would that be the end of the Mayweather legacy? Of course not – this is boxing after all, where the ‘r’ word is often taken with a pinch of salt. A series of exhibitions were capped by Floyd’s money-splashing contest against MMA star Conor McGregor, a fight which Mayweather won and banked a reported $300 million from.
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” Eric Cantona was always something of a mercurial character, and when not coming up with bizarre aquatic metaphors or kung-fu kicking Crystal Palace supporters the Frenchman found time to be rather good at the old football.
He won four Premier League titles and an FA Cup in his time with England with Leeds and Manchester United, and landed numerous Player of the Year awards for his troubles. And then….he was gone. Cantona retired from football in 1997 aged 30, going on to play beach soccer all over the world and take up an acting career.
Okay, so you would be hard pressed to call Phil Taylor an ‘athlete’. But a sixteen-time world champion in any sport deserves tremendous credit, and even at the age of 57 the man known as ‘The Power’ was still doing the business when he chose to hang up his darts for good.
He retired immediately after the 2018 World Championship final, where he lost to Rob Cross, but the season prior to his retirement the man from the Potteries had won the World Matchplay – darts’ second most prestigious tournament, the Melbourne Masters and reached semi-finals of the Premier League and the Masters. While not completely in his prime, Taylor remained one of the most fearsome opponents in darts right up until the moment he walked away from the sport.
You have to have a grudging respect for Mark Spitz, who quit swimming quite simply because he couldn’t make any money from the sport. Instead, he opted for a life in showbusiness – leaving behind a legacy of nine Olympic gold medals earned before the age of 22. Seven of those came at the Munich Games in 1972, after which Spitz promptly retired.
He made a brief comeback in 1992, when filmmaker, Bud Greenspan, challenged him to qualify for the United States Olympic team – promising to pay Spitz $1 million if he achieved the feat. Spitz failed to make it, finishing two seconds slower than the necessary qualification time.