The Advantages of Retiring from Sports Early

The world's top female tennis player, Justine Henin, retired last week after just five years as a pro. Golfer Annika Sorenstam also announced her retirement after 16 years in the game. All-time great athlete Martina Navratilova discusses the appeal of quitting while one is ahead.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Two women athletes announced their retirements last week, both at the top of their games. Annika Sorenstam dominated women's golf for much of the last decade, and won a tournament just last week, and Justine Henin has been the top-ranked women's tennis player in the world for the last two years.

To talk about these departures, we talk to one of the greatest women athletes ever, Martina Navratilova. She's on the line from New Orleans. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Ms. MARTINA NAVRATILOVA (Athlete): Oh, of course. It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SEABROOK: Now, your career lasted more than 30 years. Justine Henin is only 25 and she's hanging up her racket.

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Yeah. Well, no, she's been on the tour since about she was 16. I think they just start so much earlier seriously. You know, I didn't really play tennis more than two hours a day until I was, like, 15, 16 years old. These kids when they're eight, nine years old, they're on the court three or four hours a day training and practicing. And so I think the burnout factor comes in at a much earlier age.

SEABROOK: And you think that's why women are retiring sooner?

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Well, it's women; I mean, men too. I mean, I think it's very individual. It's just totally depends on the path that you took to get there. It depends on your physical condition, because you're wondering whether your body's going to hold up, it's just the pure joy of playing tennis goes away. And I know Justine has had some issues with her knee this year and that might have been a big contributor of that.

It's the cumulative effect that ends up getting you more than anything. So, again, I don't want to jump to any conclusions here. It seemed that Justine just had enough. She had a career year last year and she maybe felt she could do no better. Also, let's not forget how small she is. She's, like 5'5.34" so she has to fight so much harder for every point than the women she's competing against now. They're all, you know, six foot or taller and it just takes its toll as well.

SEABROOK: Now, in golf, Annika Sorenstam is stepping down after 16 years and scores of tournament victories. Do you identify with her than the younger tennis players who are leaving the game so early?

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Well, of course, 'cause she's, you know, we're almost the same generation. These women now playing in their 20s, I'm older than their moms so I'm relating to their mothers more than them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: But it's easier for a golfer to have a longer career because I think they mature a little bit later and they can, you know, sustain it physically much longer than tennis. Tennis is such an explosive sport it's really hard to dominate, you know, when you're hitting your 30s.

Justine, to me, I think Justine jumped the gun a little bit. I don't think, okay, so she's burned out and she's got some physical issues but I don't think she had to sort of hang it up that quickly. Obviously, being number one, I would have given it one more try at Wimbledon because that's the one grand slam that she's never won. Take a month off, recover, play on the grass, get ready and give it one more go and then you can hang it up and still be number one.

I don't know. It's just a shame overall because I, for one, (unintelligible) looking at it, I'd loved watched Justine Henin play. And now I'm just heading to Europe to do commentary for Tennis Channel and there won't be any Justine. It would be, like, you know, something's missing. A big part of tennis will be missing this summer.

SEABROOK: Now, I understand you're in New Orleans doing art with tennis balls?

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Yes. I've started with project with an artist. His name is Juraj Kralik. We had this idea of painting with tennis balls and he wanted me to hit the tennis balls. So, he comes up with the concept and the design and I sort of hit the - basically it's paint-covered tennis balls onto a canvas and we make art.

SEABROOK: So, there is life after big-time tennis?

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Yes, there is life after big-time tennis.

SEABROOK: Martina Navratilova won a record 354 tennis titles in her career, spanning three decades. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: All right. Thanks for having me.

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