Call it a comeback
Quitting doesn't always take -- Can Lindsay handle it?
Posted: Friday August 3, 2007 11:49AM; Updated: Friday August 3, 2007 12:10PM
The most withdrawn phrase in professional sports is "I'm retiring." It's so common for an elite athlete to come back to the arena that brought him glory that it's almost more expected now than a surprise.
I can understand the push and pull -- I'm currently facing my own impending retirement with a combined sense of relief, remorse and fear. That's the thing: There are so many intertwined factors that it's almost impossible to decipher your true motives and desires as you approach the end of your career and face a future without all you've ever known.
Lindsay Davenport is probably coming back to play professional tennis full-time. I have no doubt she'll be successful, but with my own career coming to an end, it made me think about what it means to call it quits and then go back on that decision.
Few athletes are capable of leaving "great enough" alone. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Pete Sampras are some of the few exceptions who walked away still capable of the highest levels of achievement. As I move closer each week to becoming a "former professional tennis player," I can understand why this pattern continues to repeat itself.
While I never approached greatness, the intoxication and adulation of all levels of elite sports is like a drug, and it isn't easy to find that in any real-life endeavor. And when I say "real life," I mean exactly that -- real. Professional sports aren't even close. They're an adult fantasyland with never-ending opportunities and five-star amenities.
Whether it's the best training facilities, beautiful resorts to play in or stadiums filled with adoring fans, chauffeured cars, stacks of volunteers ready to attend to every menial task or inconvenience, professional athletes become conditioned to a life in which their every need is met.
The lifestyle is built upon having everything and everyone revolve around you, where all things are rationalized in order to help you maximize your performance. Whether it's training, eating or sleeping, it's all centered on giving the athlete every chance to be successful.
Everyone around you has to be on board and buy into the mentality or they will be replaced by someone that does. It's very challenging to live a substantial period of time in this place and then flip a switch and segue into the "real" world, no matter how well adjusted you are.
And that's where Davenport, America's sweetheart, comes in. Lindsay's case is a little more intriguing -- she never technically retired. It was more of an implied retirement after she became pregnant last year. But she created a stir by playing an exhibition match only six weeks after delivering her son, Jagger Jonathan Leach, and by accepting a wild card in the doubles competition at the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., later this month -- the week preceding the U.S. Open.
Earlier this week, it was announced that she'll return to singles competition in Indonesia in September, and her agent said she'll play more tournaments with her eye on an eventual spot on the U.S. Olympic team for Beijing in 2008.
The writing is on the wall for Davenport's return to competition, and she deserves all the credit in the world. But it still begs the question: Why would someone feel such an immediate need and desire to return to a sport she had already been weaning herself off for the last few years?
As amazing an accomplishment as it will be for Davenport to rejoin the elite in the world of women's tennis -- and I believe she can and will if she chooses to -- I still feel it's an example of an athlete trying to find the type of adrenaline rush and challenges that only professional sports can offer. That need doesn't go away after the last serve is hit, after the last pitch is thrown or the last shot hoisted.
The real world doesn't offer the type of instant gratification the athletic world does. As an athlete, you're conditioned on one way of life and one way only through training, practice and discipline. When all you know is something that's validated continuously over your formative years, it makes it nearly impossible to replace.
There are many reasons why athletes have trouble letting go; some are financial, others are driven by ego. But most are fueled by an inability to fill the void left behind after a life in professional sports. Let's hope Lindsay finds what she's looking for.
Twelve-year ATP Tour veteran Justin Gimelstob writes for SI.com on alternate Fridays.