Tears, pre-announcements, vanishing into thin air: The new rules of tennis retirement


“There’s no wrong, only right,” Roger Federer says.

He is speaking with The Athletic about one of tennis’s defining issues this year, and possibly the defining issue right now: how best to retire.

As Wimbledon approaches, two fellow ‘Big Four’ members, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, are entering the endgame. Both are involved in valedictory tours — which, in Nadal’s case, could yet extend to next year — and in April and May, a flurry of retirement announcements and pre-warnings included former Grand Slam champions Garbine Muguruza and Dominic Thiem, both 30. They did it in very different ways and for very different reasons, just as Nadal and Murray are doing it their way, for their reasons.

In the new rules of tennis retirement, there are different methods of saying goodbye.

This is totally fine, according to Federer, who was 41 when he retired. “With Andy, Rafa and Novak (Djokovic), I could not tell you what I would now suggest and advise them,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s super deeply personal.”

Federer was speaking at the premiere of his new film Federer: Twelve Final Days, which will be released on Prime Video tomorrow (Thursday). It documents the period between him announcing his retirement because of a knee injury in September 2022 and his final appearance on a tennis court, at the Laver Cup, playing doubles with his old rival and friend Nadal.

One of the themes that runs through the film is also central to tennis in 2024: the agonising difficulty of picking the right moment to step away from the thing that has defined you for almost your entire life. Serena Williams even avoided using the word “retirement” when she said farewell two years ago. “Evolving away from tennis,” was her preferred expression.

Federer’s view? Don’t stress about the how of it.

“Everyone does it differently,” he says. “There’s no script. And very often we don’t remember how people retired. You just have to take the best decision in the moment. And sometimes you run out of options too, depending on what your body does.”


Serena Williams said goodbye at her home Grand Slam (Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

Save for a few exceptions, that’s probably true. Pete Sampras went out in a slightly misremembered blaze of glory; Williams brought late-night thrillers to Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, but the story of her retirement was her redefinition of tennis in America and around the world.

It’s not how players go, but what came before, that defines them.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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In late April, the former French Open and Wimbledon champion Muguruza announced that she was formally retiring — calling a press conference and explaining that she wanted a new challenge. The news was unsurprising, given she hadn’t played in 15 months. The following week, Alize Cornet, 34 and a former world No 11, announced in a social media video that she would retire after the French Open.

A couple of weeks after that and within a few days of each other, former U.S. Open winner Thiem and one-time top-10 player Diego Schwartzman, 31, announced on social media that they would be retiring soon. The former at the Vienna Open in his native Austria in October, the latter in his home country at the Argentina Open next February. This is a pretty standard retirement route these days — setting a hard deadline and giving yourself a few months to say goodbye.

“The decision came some weeks before I made it public, and at first I told my family and closest friends,” Thiem told The Athletic in a video call a couple of weeks ago about a decision that was largely brought about because of a debilitating wrist injury.

“So the decision to make it public was a small step but it was a relief and it meant that all the fans and everyone were clear about it.”

He explained that it wasn’t a particularly difficult decision because, although he is only 30, he has no interest in carrying on in such a diminished form. “I played some great matches (after the injury) but that was more because of my fighting spirit than my game,” he said. “It wasn’t because of my actual playing level — and that was always unsatisfying. That helped with the decision in the end.”


Dominic Thiem’s injury took away what were expected to be his prime years (Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)

Thiem was so decisive that some players, such as his good friend Alexander Zverev, even thought he was being too hasty. Zverev explained to reporters at the Italian Open in May that he wondered if Thiem could have opted for wrist surgery — like Zverev’s brother, Mischa — in a last-ditch attempt to save his career. Thiem says that, in consultation with medical experts, they concluded this wouldn’t provide the answer.

This is in stark contrast to Nadal and Murray, who have battled through this year with no confirmed end dates, just indications that this will be their final season, which speaks to how hard it is to let go. Especially when they both still love competing.

“In lots of careers, retirement is something you celebrate and people really look forward to that day — that’s not something I feel,” Murray said on Sunday, as he strongly hinted that he was unlikely to go on beyond the Olympics. “I love playing tennis.”

Nadal said something similar in January 2023, after suffering an injury in defeat to Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open — his last match for almost a year.“It’s a very simple thing: I like what I do. I like playing tennis.”

This is a recurring theme among players who are close to the end. Vera Zvonareva, the former world No 2 and Wimbledon finalist, turns 40 in September and is still competing, primarily in doubles. She is fresh from partnering the 17-year-old sensation Mirra Andreeva to the French Open quarterfinals and puts it simply: “I enjoy playing tennis. It’s my job but also my passion. I enjoy it or I would not be here. Mirra has great energy on the court, which also helps, and I try to support her.

“I like to play.”


How Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic reconfigured tennis


Retirement doesn’t just happen to players. For a player of Nadal and Murray’s stature, and for players who choose to retire on home turf, it brings a huge amount of ceremony, occasion, and logistics. Few players find all that comfortable — even ones as venerated as them or Federer.

“You know inevitably that we’re all going to stop working at some point — and for us, it’s the same,” Federer said.

“The only problem for us is that maybe we can’t just send a quick text and say, ‘OK, goodbye everyone’. I have had too many incredible fans and incredible people who have helped me along the way — you need to get out there and do it the hard way. Face your demons, even though it’s a nice thing to do.”

That last line is very revealing. It’s little wonder that Nadal and Murray are desperate to pick the right moment after two decades on the tour, conscious that they’ll never be able to find something quite like professional sport. Tennis is also unlike many other sports, where a manager or someone from a club tells the player their time is up. It’s all down to the individual.


Camila Giorgi at the 2024 Miami Open, which proved to be her final tournament (Brennan Asplen / Getty Images)

Some players do take Federer’s “quick text” route, or even go to another extreme.

Camila Giorgi, a former world No 26 with a colourful past, won the award for the most low-key farewell when her departure was revealed by her status being changed to retired one morning on the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) website. It was another few days before she announced her retirement, following reports of investigations by Italian tax authorities into her affairs. A few weeks after that flurry of retirements, Dutch player Botic van de Zandschulp, 28, said at the French Open that he was “thinking about” quitting because he no longer enjoyed playing. A couple of days later, he told The Athletic that he had been mistranslated and that he was carrying on.

Swedish 23-year-old Mikael Ymer, who is serving a drugs ban for missing three anti-doping tests in a year, announced in April that he would not be retiring but would attempt a comeback once his suspension was over in 2025. “Retirement was boring,” Ymer wrote on X. “See u in 8 months.”

When more ceremony is required, tournaments have to make several contingency plans depending on what players decide. At this year’s Wimbledon, the All England Club has numerous options in place depending on what Murray announces over the next few weeks. They feel they have prepared for every eventuality, which is a logistical challenge. How you pitch these sorts of farewells is not easy.

In 2019, the Australian Open put on a big farewell celebration for Murray after he revealed on the eve of the tournament that he needed hip surgery and that the end could be nigh. After watching various luminaries of the sport wish him well on a video montage, Murray had to say that, er, he wasn’t definitely retiring.

This year, Nadal’s victory lap at various clay-court events meant that tournaments in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome had to have ceremonies ready for every match in case he lost. This occasioned the awkward sight of Nadal walking off as the Italian Open prepared its celebration; the Spaniard was in no mood for adulation after a heavy loss to Hubert Hurkacz. At Roland Garros a couple of weeks later, the French Tennis Federation planned a farewell ceremony for Nadal, only to shelve it once he said it might not be his last French Open after all.


Rafael Nadal’s ceremony at the Madrid Open commemorated his five titles there (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

One of the problems Nadal and Murray have found is the media’s obsession with when they are going to retire (sorry, guys). They are at the extreme end of that interest because of their huge fame, but even for less high-profile players, there is an awareness that once you start talking about retirement it adds to the media interest.

Cornet took a different approach. She decided she would retire last year but didn’t announce her plans until April, a month before her final tournament at the French Open because she “didn’t want the media to talk to me about it too often”.

Cornet found she was liberated by making the announcement, and went on her best run since realising it was time to go some months earlier. She reached the semis and quarters of a couple of Challenger events and then bowed out at Roland Garros. “It was a lot of ups and downs,” she says. “Emotionally, it was not easy. Some days, I was excited about retirement and other days, I was scared and uncertain.”

Danielle Collins, who is also in some of the best form of her career in her last season on tour, has been unequivocal about how endometriosis and arthritis have contributed to her decision to retire, and the fact that tennis is something she does, not who she is. In March, at Indian Wells, she told The Athletic, “I’ve loved what I’ve done and the opportunity and the doors it’s opened, but it’s not easy.”


More often for players who retire, tennis is all they have known, and they are acutely conscious that they will never get the same high again. “It’s super difficult because that’s the only way you know to live since you were a kid,” Thiem says. “And every tennis player who is probably even in the world rankings will never be able to do something as good as playing tennis.”

Cornet adds: “It means turning a page of 20 years of my life, 20 years of full commitment. When you have to turn that page and realise it’s over, yeah, it’s a void, in a way. And you have to fill it in another way and find stuff that makes you happy.

“Psychologically, it’s one of the most difficult things to handle, and I’m very happy that I have a very good entourage to help me with that.”


Alize Cornet waved goodbye at this year’s French Open (Dan Istitene / Getty Images)

Then there is the search for the perfect ending. It’s a tantalising proposition that can convince players they should go on that little bit longer. Whether that’s the perfect venue, or achieving one last goal — Murray has been desperate for another second-week run at a Grand Slam tournament — it’s an elusive promise that is nearly impossible to grasp. When Serena Williams retired at the U.S. Open 2022, she had her ceremony after her first-round win, instead of bookending her career with a final defeat enmeshed with reflective celebration.

Federer feels that the way he went out, surrounded by his closest friends and rivals on the tour — including Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, who were all his Team Europe team-mates at the Laver Cup — was ideal for him. “It ended up being so beautiful,” he says. “Because in an individual sport, being surrounded by your contemporaries is rare. There were a lot of special moments.”

During the film, Murray comments on how appropriate it is that Federer’s last match should be playing doubles with Nadal, the rival who most defined his career. But before that Laver Cup farewell, Federer’s final singles match was a hugely dispiriting defeat to Hurkacz in the Wimbledon quarterfinal more than a year earlier — which included the only 6-0 set he ever lost in the tournament. Federer desperately wanted one last Wimbledon title, but his knee had other ideas.

Did the loss in any way damage his Wimbledon legacy of eight titles? Absolutely not.


Federer’s celebration defined the end of his career. (Li Ying / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Sampras remains the gold standard for bowing out at the top. His last match was the 2002 U.S. Open final where he beat his biggest rival Andre Agassi to win his 14th Grand Slam, aged 31. But even that was preceded by two years without a tournament win and months of calls for his retirement (especially after an embarrassing second-round loss at Wimbledon to George Bastl a few months before that U.S. Open swansong). Sampras also then deliberated for almost a year over whether to retire, before eventually deciding it was the right thing to do.

And might he now wonder whether he went too soon? This is another fiendishly difficult element to all this and is something mentioned by John McEnroe, who returned to the sport to play doubles on a couple of occasions after his retirement in 1992. “Even Pete probably looks back and thinks, ‘I had 14 majors, had the all-time record, maybe I should have played past 31’,” McEnroe says. “So no matter what, you have regrets in a way and things you wish you’d done differently.”


As for the rest of the locker room, has the rash of retirements made them think about how they would like to go?

“I don’t have pressure,” says Zvonareva. “I’m not saying I’m going to play this and this and then I’m retiring. No, if I want to play more tournaments, I will play. If I don’t feel like playing, I won’t. It’s really open.”

Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam champion who is 36 and returned from maternity leave this year, says: “I really don’t think about this yet. I’ve always said I will play as long as my body allows me, and while the fire is still there.”

Victoria Azarenka, 34 and another multiple major winner, wants to have a low-key exit when she leaves. “I’m not going to have a farewell tour,” she says. “It’s going to be simple. I’ll just say bye. To me, it will be at the point when I’m not learning something anymore.”


Azarenka’s last Grand Slam title came in Australia in 2013. (Manan Vatsyayana / AFP via Getty Images)

She also explains why playing is so addictive and why a lot of players eschew their earlier retirement plans. “When I was 20, I thought I’d never play past 27. Then I thought, ‘OK, 30 will probably be enough’. Now I’m nearly 35 and I think, ‘Why not keep playing?’. I’m still playing well, competing at the biggest events, and feel like I can beat anybody. I’m very competitive.”

Adrian Mannarino, the 35-year-old Frenchman, says that “when it’s time to stop, you feel it”.

Madison Keys, the American world No 12 who, at 29, is a way off from thinking about this, jokes that she’ll go down the Giorgi route. “I saw on Twitter a link to the ITIA site that said Giorgi had gone and I was like May 7, that’s yesterday. So I was like, ‘That’s how I’m going to do it’.

“I’m just going to disappear. You just won’t see me again. You’ll be like, ‘Where is she? We haven’t seen her forever’. I’ll just slowly fade away.”

Keys laughs at the absurdity of what she’s saying, but as Federer alluded to, this probably is a route a lot of players feel they would like to go down if they could.

Perhaps it helps to have an outsider’s perspective. Asif Kapadia is one of Britain’s most respected filmmakers, and his credits include Senna, Amy, and Diego Maradona. He is the co-director of the new Federer film and is more of a football than a tennis fan. He says that one of the themes that most attracted him to the film was the idea that “athletes die twice” — a saying referred to in the movie.

“I was interested in this idea that even if you’ve won it all, and you’re really successful, with a loving family and everything’s great, for him it’s still like a death,” Kapadia says. “’Athletes die twice’. I had never heard that said so succinctly, and it’s right. That’s what they have to deal with.

“He’s crying and the people around him who haven’t retired are crying because they know it’s not that far off for them. And that’s what is really interesting.

“It doesn’t matter how successful you are when your body won’t let you do it anymore. If you’re a sportsperson who’s ever played or had an injury, you know what that’s like.

“That feeling of: what do I do next?”

(Top photos: Jean Catuffe; Tom Jenkins / Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)



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