Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Henin joins growing list of athletes departing before their time is up
By Brett Edgerton
Justine Henin's stunning retirement at the age of 25 was astounding, considering her status as the world's No. 1 tennis player and the fact that the French Open -- of which she is the three-time defending champion -- is less than two weeks away.
However, she is not the first to retire in the prime of a career. Twenty-fours hours before Henin, Annika Sorenstam, who has played brilliantly in 2008, announced her exit from golf, effective at year's end.
Here's a look at 10 legendary athletes who decided to hang it up far too early.
In January 1983, Borg -- easily one of the greatest tennis players of all time -- retired at just 26 years old. The Swede attempted an unsuccessful comeback in the early '90s, but he's most remembered for the nine-year career that made his retirement so stunning. Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam tournaments he played in, coming out victorious in 90 percent of the singles matches during those events. How's this for a stretch of success? Borg won five straight Wimbledons from 1976 to 1980 and four straight French Open crowns from 1978 to 1981.
Brown couldn't quite find the right balance between football and his pursuit of a Hollywood career, so he abruptly left the NFL in the summer of 1966. After an all-too-short career of just nine seasons, Brown retired as the league's career leader in rushing yards, all-purpose yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. To this day, it's still hard to find many people who will argue that Brown wasn't the greatest running back of all time.
How good was Dryden? He played just seven full seasons in the NHL and is widely considered one of the greatest goaltenders ever. The 6-foot-4 netminder was nearly unbeatable during the Montreal Canadiens' dynasty of the 1970s, posting a .790 regular-season win percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average. In those seven seasons, he won the Vezina Trophy five times and the Stanley Cup six times. After retiring at 31, Dryden became an author, TV commentator and hockey executive and is currently a prominent Canadian politician.
With Wednesday's retirement, Henin became the first women's tennis player to leave the sport as the top-ranked player in the world. The diminutive 25-year-old from Belgium won seven Grand Slams, including the past three French Opens, and finished atop the rankings the past two seasons. She won 10 tournaments in 2007 alone, including the U.S. Open.
Holdsclaw, one of the greatest college players of all time while at Tennessee, retired at 29 in the middle of her ninth WNBA season. Although she battled clinical depression off the court, Holdsclaw showed no signs of diminishing performance on the court, closing her career with six straight All-Star appearances. In fact, Holdsclaw's best two shooting years came in her final two seasons.
Forget that stint with the Washington Wizards. We're talking about when he "retired" in 1993 and 1998, both times at the top of his game. His first announcement, in October '93, was an absolute stunner. A 30-year-old MJ had just completed his seventh straight season as the NBA's leading scorer and had won his third straight Finals MVP award during Chicago's three-peat. Jordan's second retirement was not nearly as big a surprise, but he clearly had some gas left in the tank. He won three more Finals MVP crowns as his Bulls won three titles in a row again. In his last appearance in the championship series, Jordan averaged 33.5 points per game, including 45 points and the game winner in the deciding Game 6.
Koufax was just 30 years old when he retired from the Dodgers in 1966. He had started to develop arthritis, but it didn't show as far as the bottom line was concerned. Koufax won 27 games and posted a 1.73 ERA in his final year. No left-hander since has finished a season with more wins or a lower ERA. In fact, Koufax won 25-plus games in three of his final four seasons, with all three ending in a World Series appearance for Los Angeles. In eight career starts at the Fall Classic, Koufax recorded an almost unthinkable 0.95 ERA.
The pride of Brockton, Mass., remains the only heavyweight in boxing history to retire with an unblemished professional record (49-0, 43 KO). Marciano was the heavyweight champion from 1952 to the day he retired in April 1956. His final fight was a knockout of Archie Moore in front of more than 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.
His retirement at 30, which he announced in a fax to his hometown paper, sent shock waves throughout the football world. When he hung it up with 15,269 rushing yards, Sanders had several years left on his contract and was just one healthy season from breaking Walter Payton's then-record for rushing in an NFL career. Sanders averaged 358 more yards per season in his last five years (1,696) than in his first five (1,328).
Sorenstam announced her retirement -- imminent at season's end -- Tuesday at the age of 37. Although not quite as dominant as in years past, the Swedish star has finished in the top 10 in seven of eight events this season. Among Sorenstam's three victories in 2008 is a 19-under performance in her most recent event.
Brett Edgerton is an ESPN researcher.