Sports
5:03 pm
Fri August 16, 2013

Marion Bartoli Retires From Tennis At The Top Of Her Game

Originally published on Fri August 16, 2013 6:22 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And Audie Cornish. Just 40 days after winning the women's singles title at Wimbledon, Marion Bartoli of France announced on Wednesday that she's retiring from tennis at age 28. Bartoli now joins a relatively short list of top athletes who decided to call it quits in their prime. Sports writer Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So tell us more about Marion Bartoli and her announcement.

FATSIS: Well, she's been a top 20 player for more than 6 years. She lost a Wimbledon final in 2007 and then this year, she won Wimbledon without dropping a set. She's known as intense on the court, a little bit quirky and in contrast to a lot of her younger and more cloistered colleagues, she's mature and outgoing off of the court.

And what's making her retirement a big story is the way she announced it. After a second round loss in a tournament in Cincinnati, there were only a handful of reporters present to see her break down in tears. It seemed sudden, but to Bartoli, it probably happened more like Fitzgerald wrote, gradually and then suddenly.

CORNISH: So why does she say she's retiring?

FATSIS: I have pain everywhere, she said, a litany of injuries, Achilles, tendon, back, ribs, shoulder, abs, knees. She played through pain at Wimbledon, took a month off afterward and she only returned to the women's tour last week. It looked like business as usual for a top athlete. Her agent was even talking about new sponsorship deals. But after that loss the other night, it sounded as if Bartoli had decided that she had achieved what she had dreamed about for two decades, winning Wimbledon, and enough was enough.

She said that was probably the last little bit of something that was left inside me. I have the right to do something else as well.

CORNISH: So interesting to hear that from an athlete at her level, right? I mean, asserting her own right to her life. Rightly or wrongly, it seems like we expect athletes to basically play through the pain.

FATSIS: Yeah, until they expire on the field or they're cut from a team. We think, and not always unjustly, that elite athletes have these gifts that we wish we had and therefore they should exploit them until those gifts disappear. We don't expect that to happen at age 28 or 26, in the case of tennis star Bjorn Borg, or 29 when football legend Jim Brown retired, or 30, baseball's Sandy Koufax or even 37 when Annika Sorenstam, the golfer, retired at the top of her game.

Bartoli is a reminder that for all the reporting about injury X and injury Y, we've got no idea what's happening to an athlete's body and in her mind.

CORNISH: Especially, you could argue, in tennis where there's this reputation that top players are driven by coaches and parents from the time that they can lift a racquet.

FATSIS: Yeah, and Bartoli said she'd been playing competitively for 22 years. She was coached for all but the last few months of that by her father. And in women's tennis, that parental involvement has often proved pretty stultifying. She trained daily and obsessively. Overall, the physical and emotional stress is huge and the life can get tiresome.

I once interviewed an Olympic shot-putter, Adam Nelson, a Dartmouth graduate and he described the intellectual boredom of training. Some athletes don't care. They push and push until their bodies simply don't go anymore. A rare few have the intellectual ability to let go sooner and move on with their lives.

CORNISH: At the same time, these early retirements seem to happen more frequently in tennis. I mean, in the last few years, there's been Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. All of them have gone out in their 20s.

FATSIS: Yeah, but they turned pro at 14, 16 and 16. Bartoli was 15. That's a lot of serving and pounding and traveling. Hingis, Clijsters and Henin did make comebacks because that's also what a lot of top athletes do. They miss the life and why wouldn't they? You know, it's literally all they've known.

Martina Hingis, she played in her first tournament at age four. She's now begun a second tour comeback at 32. She's playing doubles only and plans to do so in the U.S. Open starting in 10 days. Bartoli, by the way, insisted that she is done forever. We'll see.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sports podcast, "Hang Up And Listen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.