Ash Barty to Michael Jordan – elite athletes retiring at their peak

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Ashleigh Barty shocked the world when she announced her retirement on Wednesday just months after winning the Australian Open. But the world No. 1 women’s tennis player isn’t the first elite sportsperson to call time on their careers despite being at the peak of their game.

Here is a (non-comprehensive) list of big athletes who retired early (on their own terms, without being forced out by injury or slipping standards):

Michael Jordan

Date of retirement: October 6, 1993.

Age at retirement: 30

Achievements: Michael Jordan was probably at the height of his basketball prowess at the start of the 1993/1994 season. He had completed a three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, leading the league in points per game in each of those years. He averaged a finals record 41 points per game and became the first player in the NBA to win three straight Finals MVP awards. A year earlier in 1992 he had been part of the USA dream team that dominated every opponent en route to a gold medal at the Olympics. However, just 17 games into the 1993/1994 season Jordan announced his decision to retire.

Reason for retirement: Jordan stated he had lost his desire to play basketball. In his autobiography, Jordan would write that he was exhausted playing in the Olympic team and had been contemplating retirement that year itself. He would later say that the murder of his father – a man he had greatly looked up to – earlier that year had also played a part in his decision. After stepping away from basketball, Jordan signed a contract with a Minor League Baseball team. However, after a short spell in the minor leagues, Jordan eventually made his return to the NBA a little over a year and a half later. [And completed another three-peat].

Justine Henin

Day of retirement: 14 May, 2008

Age at retirement: 26

Achievements: After a dominant 2007 season where she had won the French Open and US Open, Henin had had a solid though not spectacular start to 2008. She’d win two tournaments on the WTA tour but also lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open – her first defeat outside the semifinals of a Grand Slam since 2002. She called time on her career just before the French Open where she had been a favourite as a three-time defending champion.

Reason for retirement: Henin’s retirement came as a surprise since she had held the number one ranking for 116 weeks and continuously for 14 months. She announced that she felt no sadness about her retirement, considering it a release from a sport she had focused on for two decades. She also said that she would be focusing on her charity work and her tennis school. Henin would return from retirement a couple of years later in 2010. Despite an impressive comeback – she reached the final of the Australian Open as a wildcard – Henin would retire again a year later.

Bobby Fischer

Retirement: 1975

Age at retirement: 32

Achievements: A chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer stunned the world when he beat the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky to win the World Chess Championship in 1972, in what was then termed the match of the century. While the USA did not have a strong chess culture at the point, Fischer would become a media sensation owing to the Cold War and the fact that an American had overthrown the best player of the Soviet Union – a nation that had dominated the sport for the past quarter-century. At the time of his victory, Fischer held an ELO rating of 2785, the highest by any player at that point in history.

Reason for retirement: He stopped playing competitive matches following his win against Spassky and then refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 after making a number of demands on playing conditions that were not agreed to by his opponent. Fischer didn’t play a competitive game for nearly 20 years before coming out of semi obscurity in 1992 to play a rematch with Spassky that he would win.

Khabib Nurmagomedov

Retirement: 24 October 2020

Age at retirement: 31

Achievements: When Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement in the octagon shortly after he forced Justin Gaethje to tap via a triangle choke at UFC 254, he was perhaps the most dominant fighter in the promotion. He had just defended his UFC lightweight title for the fourth time and improved his career to 29-0, and 13-0 in the UFC. Nurmagomedov, in his 13 fights in the UFC, had never had a moment where he had been in trouble and had arguably never lost a round.

Reason for retirement: In his post-fight interview, Nurmagomedov explained that he had promised his mother that he would not continue to fight without his late father Abdulmanap, who had died of COVID-19 just a few weeks before his final bout. “No way I’m going to come here without my father. It was the first time after what happened with my father, when UFC called me about Justin, I talked with my mother for three days. She doesn’t want me to go fight without my father but I promised her it was going to be my last fight. If I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here,” he said. Nearly two years on, Nurmagomedov has stayed true to his word, and has started his own fight promotion.

Mark Spitz

Retirement: 1972

Age at retirement: 22

Recent Achievement: Spitz was only 18 when he had predicted he would win six gold medals in swimming at the 1968 Olympics. He had finished with two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Spitz would repeat his prediction for six gold at the 1972 Olympics but this time would do even better, winning seven golds in Munich, setting a world record in each of those events. Spitz’ nine career gold medals would tie him in second place for the most Olympic gold medals by an athlete, while his seven medals in Munich would be the most won by any individual athlete at a single Olympics until Michael Phelps won eight in 2008.

Reason for retirement: Despite becoming one of the most recognisable Olympians, Spitz retired shortly after the Munich Games. He was able to parlay his fame to commercial success earning millions of dollars in endorsements and trying his hand at multiple fields including taking a few roles as an actor.

Bjorn Borg

Retirement: January, 1983

Age at retirement: 26

Achievements: Bjorn Borg would win his sixth French Open title in 1981 and reach the final of Wimbledon and the US Open the same year, losing on both occasions to John McEnroe. By the end of the year he had held the ATP number 1 ranking for 109 weeks and had won 11 Grand Slams at that point.

Reason for retirement: Despite being physically fit, Borg played just the one tournament in 1982, losing in the quarterfinal of the Monte Carlo Masters. He had been losing his interest in competing on the pro tour. Reflecting on his defeat at the final of the 1981 Wimbledon Championships, Borg recalled, “When I lost what shocked me was I wasn’t even upset. That was not me: losing a Wimbledon final and not upset. I hate to lose.” Borg felt that his desire to play was gone. When he lost to McEnroe once again in the final of the US Open he walked out of the stadium and straight to the Airport before the prize ceremony had started. Borg would eventually make a return to the pro tour in 1991 but failed to attain any of his earlier success.

Eric Cantona

Date of retirement: May 17, 1997

Age at retirement: 30

Achievements: With iconic popped collar, and a rare footballing genius, Eric Cantona became a legend at Manchester United. He won four Premier League titles in five years at the club, had songs composed in his honour and manager Alex Ferguson considers him one of only four world-class players he managed in his 26 years at the club.

Reason for retirement: Cantona would call time on his career after the 1996-97 season. Despite his success at the club, he felt the need to step away from his professional career. He came to this realisation during Manchester United’s matches in the Champions League semifinals (where they lost both legs 1-0 against Borussia Dortmund). While he would later say that he was in physically good enough shape to have played another decade if he’d really wanted to, his heart wasn’t in it anymore. “I was very passionate about the game and I always said that when I lost that passion, I would retire. Of course, nobody believed me when I lost that passion, I retired. No regrets.”

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