There is a reassuring sense of familiarity about the annual tennis calendar. Seasons follow one after the other – hard court, clay, grass, hard court – in such a rhythmic manner that it ends up providing the very meter and beat we measure time with. For example, we have now seen eight clay seasons of Rafael Nadal dominance. Or, we will soon be entering Novak Djokovic’s fourth season of spring dominance on Australian hardcourts.
But just as we get comfortable with set patterns and player match-ups, come the news of sportsmen permanently retiring from the game. This, in its own way, provides us with its own measure of time – longer and less structured compared to the tennis calendar, but more poignant and personal to us. How did we develop as fans while the player matured over the course of his career? Did I really hate that player’s guts when I first saw him in action? Was that hairstyle really in fashion back when she started out?
As 2013 draws to a close, here is a personal look back at the prominent players who decided to exit from the never-ending cycle that is the international tennis calendar, this year.
David Nalbandian, talented all-court Argentine, called it quits this October with a persistent shoulder injury.
My first memory of Nalbandian is in the Wimbledon Chamionships of 2002, when he clashed with Lleyton Hewitt in the final. I remember being deeply disappointed with this match-up, coming as it did on the back of an all-time classic the preceding year, when Goran Ivanisevic had kept his date with Wimbledon destiny over Patrick Rafter in an epic encounter in the final. This time, however, there was an Australian grinder pummeling what seemed to be a tubby, Argentine baseliner into submission, on a surface where neither player seemed a natural fit.
But over the years, Nalbandian forced me to change my perceptions about him. He always remained slightly tubbier than a top-level sportsman should be, but his all-surface, all-court game won me over.
Throughout his career, he remained a threat to the top players on his day. He can boast of the rare honour of having beaten Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer in succession to win at Madrid in 2007. He can be proud of the one season-ending championship he won in 2005, coming from two sets down to beat Federer in the final. He will count among his greatest achievements the feat of having led Argentina to the Davis Cup final on three occasions, albeit without having secured the trophy even once.
And therein, might lie the essence of Nalbandian’s career. Of having come close to triumph on numerous occasions without quite managing the last step, of having threatened with his talents to accomplish a lot more than what he ended up doing. Add to that, his fair share of controversies, including clashes with junior countryman Juan Martin del Potro and his disqualification from Queens in 2012 for causing injury to a linesman, and we have the picture of a frustrated, volatile genius. In the end, I would like to think of his legacy in terms of what is commonly mentioned about him – one of the greatest players never to win a major.
Highest Ranking – 3 (2006)
No. of ATP Singles titles - 11
Best Grand Slam Performance – Wimbledon, 2002 (Final)
I suspect it is going to be much easier to understand Marion Bartoli’s legacy in the years ahead.
It is likely to be one intrinsically linked to Wimbledon. Bartoli won her only major title at Wimbledon this year, and then sprang a surprise retirement on us just six weeks later.
Bartoli remained a unique one-off right through her career. She had a unique individual playing style, which included double-handed strokes on both flanks, an inordinate amount of shadow playing and bouncing around on tennis courts, and focused intensity on every point she played. She also had an eccentric ‘Doctor-dad’ who acted as coach and mentor, gave refreshing interviews, and boasted of an IQ of 175. What was there not to like?
In spite of all her personality and playing quirks (or perhaps, because of them), I admit I never saw her as a Grand Slam champion. Even when she made it all the way to the Wimbledon final in 2007, it seemed a pure one-off, an event caused by fortuitous circumstances. After all, how could you take seriously someone who credited her semi-final upset over Justine Henin to the presence of her favourite actor, Pierce Brosnan, in the royal box?
But the French belle continued to plug away on the circuit, continued to maintain her spot on the fringes of the tennis elite, and finally got her chance at Wimbledon redemption this year. Facing an unexpected finalist in Sabine Lisicki, she ensured she did not miss out on the opportunity, and calmly proceeded to claim her maiden Grand Slam title. A month and a half later, she was addressing the press again, this time on her retirement, with tears in her eyes. Injuries contributed to the decision, she said, but it was clear that the attaining of a cherished goal in Wimbledon had made the decision that much easier.
Highest Ranking – 7 (2012)
No. of WTA Singles titles – 8
Best Grand Slam Performance – Wimbledon, 2013 (Champion)
James Blake, on the other hand, had the luxury (or foresight) to time his retirement, when he announced that this year’s US Open would be his last tournament on the circuit.
So, as we watched him lose to Ivo Karlovic at Flushing Meadows in a late night encounter under the lights, and finally trudge to his seat a defeated man to the cheers of his support squad, we had the opportunity to feel bitter-sweet about the man’s career ending.
After all, how should we look back at Blake’s achievements over the years? His career always remained in the periphery for someone like me, a typical, non-American tennis fan. This was primarily due to lack of relative success in the biggest of stages, namely the majors, where he never went past the quarter-final stage. And the second part of his career was spent battling injuries and anonymity on the tennis circuit.
But then again, this was the man who was once the highest ranked American in the world (at number 4), seen as the next big tennis star after the Agassi-Sampras generation. This was also the man who suffered a career-threatening, freak neck injury in 2004, but then proceeded to chart an inspiring comeback to post a stellar year in 2005.
It was only fitting that the US Open would serve as his final theatre, the venue to some of his best performances on a tennis court.
The quarter-final he lost to Andre Agassi in 2005 at Flushing Meadows in a fifth set tie-breaker is still regarded as one of the best matches played at the tournament.
Perhaps in the end, Blake’s career is best summed up as the Great American Dream, both in terms of the success he had and the goals that remained as unfulfilled aspirations.
Highest Ranking – 4 (2006)
No. of ATP Singles titles – 10
Best Grand Slam Performance – US Open, 2005, 2006 (QF), Australian Open, 2008 (QF)
Anna Chakvedatze, she of the Russian brigade of the 2000’s, announced her retirement as a result of persistent back injuries this year.
I remember Chakvedatze from her performances in her breakout year of 2007. That year, she won 4 WTA titles, made it at least to the quarter-finals of three majors, and held a ranking as high as number 5 in the world. At that time, it didn’t seem like that big a deal, or that that was the best we would see of her. After all, we were in the middle of the Russian female wave of tennis players swamping the circuit, and there was no reason to believe it would end anytime soon. Along with the Sharapovas, Myskinas and Dementievas of the time, she was another pretty Russian youngster with a solid baseline game, intense drive to succeed, and the future in her hand.
At the end of 2007, Chakvedatze suffered a traumatic encounter with intruders who broke into her home, tied her up and threatened her while committing a burglary. While she publicly stated that the incident was out of her mind soon after, her results on the tennis court were never the same again. This was soon followed by a spate of injuries and illnesses that laid her low.
Repeated comeback attempts followed, with diminishing rewards. Her latest comeback was as recent as 2012, but by then, the game had moved on, her rankings were non-existent, and she was never totally free from injuries.
With the announcement of her retirement, Chakvedatze brought to a close, another poignant tale of what-could-have-been.
Highest Ranking – 5 (2007)
No. of WTA Singles titles – 8
Best Grand Slam Performance – US Open, 2007 (SF)
Other prominent retirees this year who deserve mention include Nicolas Massu, who will forever be the guy who won two improbable gold medals for Chile in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, Xavier Malisse and his ponytail, who I will remember watching win the Chennai Open from the front row, and the duo of Anne Keothavang and Elena Baltacha, the primary British female hopes in the period immediately leading up to Laura Robson.
As the annual tennis cycle prepares to begin again, we realize we will get on the wheel this time without these competitors, all of whom have contributed in their own ways to our understanding of sport and its sportsmen. We thank them for all the memories, and wish them the very best in their new endeavors off the court.