Sorenstam, Henin quit while they're ahead

The premier female golfer of her generation and the No. 1 tennis player in the world retire on consecutive days. Is something up?

By King Kaufman
May 15, 2008 9:40PM (UTC)
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It sounds like the setup of some oddball espionage flick: On consecutive days, the world's top-ranked women's golf and tennis players announce their retirement. Who is retiring the great female sports stars of the world?

Annika Sorenstam said Tuesday that she'll be ending her career at the end of the golf season. On Wednesday, in a much bigger shocker, world No. 1 tennis player Justine Henin, two weeks shy of her 26th birthday and not injured, said she's walking away from the game effective immediately. She's the first player ever to quit at No. 1.


Imagine if Tiger Woods and Roger Federer had announced their retirements on consecutive days. They'd knock the NBA and NHL playoffs off the front pages for a week.

The bizarre coincidence of the timing of their announcements aside, Sorenstam and Henin's retirements don't have much in common. It would be easy to clump them together and ponder what it is that's forcing the top women out of their sports early. But it might not be all that fruitful. Sorenstam and Henin are separate cases.

Sorenstam is 37 and at a more logical point in her career to step away than Henin, especially since she's soon to be married for a second time and says she wants to have a baby.


Woods can shuffle his calendar to accommodate the birth of his daughter. It's a little more complicated than that for a woman. Henin's countrywoman Kim Clijsters, also a top tennis player, retired a year ago at the age of 23 because she wanted to have a baby, which she did in February.

While Sorenstam's still a top player, she hasn't returned to her earlier dominance since returning from a bulging disk in her neck last year. Even if she never swings another golf club in earnest again, she won't have a legacy of what might have been.

"I'm very content with what I've achieved," Sorenstam said, "and it just feels right." Except for chasing Kathy Whitworth's record of 88 career victories, which Sorenstam says doesn't matter to her, she's pretty much accomplished what she was going to accomplish.


Not so for Henin. The winner of seven Grand Slam titles including four French Opens, the last three in a row, she won't defend her title at Roland Garros starting next weekend. Had she played in Paris and won, she would have become the first woman in the open era to win four straight championships there.

Reuters reports that she had spoken excitedly about the French Open just last week. She also had talked about playing in the Olympics and at Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam she hadn't won.


Sorenstam is also that rare sports figure who has transcended her sport. She's reasonably well-known to people who don't follow women's golf, mostly because she was so good she was able to compete against men in a PGA event.

Henin recalls the famous answer the drama critic gave to the Broadway publicist who asked how he could get his leading lady's name in the New York Times: "Shoot her."

Though she's an exciting player with a full arsenal of shots, including a one-handed backhand that sends tennis-heads into veritable paroxysms of admiration, she's had some personal drama -- estrangement and reconciliation with her family, divorce, a feud with Serena Williams stemming from an incident at the 2003 French Open -- and she's notably smaller than most of her opponents and all of her top rivals, Henin, like Federer, has never captured the attention of those who weren't already fascinated by tennis.


She has never been more famous than she is today, the first full day of her post-tennis life.

Unless she changes her mind. That's always the speculation when an athlete retires while still playing well. Sorenstam even referenced that ultimate "did you say don't go" diva of recent sporting times, Brett Favre.

Henin talked about how she'd lost her passion for the game she'd been playing since she was 5: "I gave the sport all I could and took everything it could give me," she said at a press conference at her tennis academy in Belgium. "I take this decision without the least bit of regrets. It is my life as a woman that starts now."


Yeah, yeah, say the chattering classes. See you in a year. Federer said he'd have taken a year off rather than retiring had he lost the ol' belly fire.

Rare is the athlete who retires early and doesn't feel the itch. Even Bjorn Borg, who walked away at 26, came back eventually, toting his wooden racket long after such primitive tools had themselves been retired.

Even more rare are sports figures who go out not just when there's something left in the tank, but at the very top. It takes tremendous courage -- or tremendous, Martina Hingis-like turmoil, which Henin and those around her say is not the case -- to walk away at that point. It's a hell of a thing to plunge from a world you reign over to one in which you're just another person, albeit a rich one, trying to get by -- "my life as a woman." Henin sounded confident and appeared content and relaxed Wednesday. It was her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, not her, who choked up.

"I want to rediscover the small pleasures, not look at my watch all the time because I have to get to training the next day," Henin said Wednesday. "I want to stay in shape but I want to spend time with the people I love, drive my nephews and nieces to activities, have time. It's all I want right now."


That all sounds great right now to someone who's spent her entire adult life in a pressure cooker. But it might sound like torture a year from now to someone who, whether she realizes it or not, has been largely formed by that pressure cooker. My niece needs a ride again?!

Sorenstam plays a game that lends itself to much longer careers. Golf is that rare profession that, upon retirement, becomes an amiable pastime. Most people retire to, not from, golf. If she wanted to, Sorenstam could probably have a couple of babies, get them to middle school and then come back and at least compete on the LPGA and win on the Legends Tour.

The WNBA season gets under way this weekend. Lisa Leslie, one of the league's biggest stars, will return to the court after skipping a year for childbirth and maternity leave. Here's hoping Lauren Jackson, Diana Taurasi, Laura Beard and Seimone Augustus aren't getting any big ideas from Sorenstam and Henin. The same goes for Danica Patrick, who's in Indianapolis trying again to become the first woman to win the Indy 500.

It's been an interesting week in women's sports. A few more interesting weeks like it would be downright disastrous.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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