WIMBLEDON, England — Most tennis pros retire by their mid-30s. But last week, Serena Williams, almost 41, battled a player just over half her age for more than three hours at Wimbledon.
Venus Williams is here too. She played mixed doubles, with a band on her right knee and a less springy step in her 42-year-old step. Roger Federer, who has not played since limping out of Wimbledon last year, is set to return to the tennis tour in September, when he will be just 41. Rafael Nadal threatens deep Wimbledon run and eyes Grand Slam at 36 after a medical procedure that killed the nerves in his troubled left leg.
To varying degrees, the biggest names in tennis continue. Why is it so hard, with their best years behind them, to leave the stage and relax with their millions? And it’s not just tennis. Tiger Woods, whose net worth is estimated at $1 billion, is struggling to recover from severe leg injuries at the age of 46. Tom Brady can’t stay away from football. Regularly employed people go through life believing that retirement is the end of the game. Not so with professional athletes.
It’s not just advances in fitness and nutrition that keep their bodies in the game. The changing nature of the sports business and celebrity conspires to keep stars in it much longer than in the past. But there is another element that remains constant through the generations.
“I understand 100 percent why they want to continue,” said Martina Navratilova, the longtime No. 1 and 18-time major singles champion who retired at age 37 in 1994, returned to doubles and didn’t retire for good. until he was almost 50.
“You really appreciate it and realize how lucky you are to be out there doing what we’re doing,” Navratilova said. “It’s a drug. It is a very legal drug that many people would like to have but cannot obtain.
Serena Williams exited Wimbledon in the first round for the second year in a row, far from her best form and gasping for air down the stretch. She and Federer soon face a lack of ranking in the sport they have dominated for decades. Venus Williams decided at the last minute to play mixed doubles at Wimbledon. But there are no reports of exit strategies; there are no target dates on the end dates.
“You never know where I’m going to pop up,” Venus Williams said Friday before she and Jamie Murray lost Sunday to Alicia Barnett and Jonny O’Mara in a third-set tiebreak in the round of 16.
Earlier on Sunday, at a ceremony on Center Court, Federer, who has a record eight Wimbledon men’s titles but has not played a match in a year, said he hoped to play at Wimbledon “one more time” before retired.
It’s a new kind of uncertainty: great champions well past their prime but not yet ready to call it a career, while outsiders speculate when the call will come. Nadal, who himself has sparked much talk of retirement and said he was close to retiring just a few weeks ago due to chronic leg pain, understands the public’s desire for clarity. Famous athletes “become a part of so many people’s lives,” he said after advancing to the third round at Wimbledon.
Even Nadal said he felt uneasy after seeing his friend Woods become a part-time golfer. “It’s also a change in my life.”
But Woods and the Williams sisters, like other aging and often absent sports stars, remain active, not retired. There may be commercial incentives to keep it that way. Official retirement doesn’t just end a player’s career. It can terminate an endorsement contract or sponsorship deal and reduce a star’s visibility.
“It’s usually black and white that when you announce your retirement, that clearly gives the company the right to go out of business,” said Tom Ross, a longtime U.S. tennis agent.
But there are exceptions, Ross said, and late-career champions of the caliber of Federer and Serena Williams often have deals that give them security even if they retire before the deal expires. Federer’s 10-year clothing deal with Uniqlo is one example.
He, like Serena Williams, also has the luxury of time.
Almost any other unranked tennis player would not be able to secure regular participation in the top tournaments if he decided to continue. But Federer and Williams have wild card access with their buzz-generating cash and thus can pick their spots.
Nike, as Federer and some others have discovered, is reluctant to shell out big bucks for superstars nearing retirement, preferring active athletes with longer runs. But Mike Nakajima, former director of tennis at Nike, said Williams, still sponsored by Nike, was in a unique position. It has its own building on the Nike campus.
“Her building is bigger than Portland International Airport,” Nakajima said. He added: “She’s had her hands in so many different things, so many interests, so many passions, that I think in many ways it won’t matter when she stops. Serena will always be Serena.”
This week, EleVen by Venus Williams, her lifestyle brand, launched an all-white collection for Wimbledon, which wasn’t hurt by the fact that Williams was actually playing at Wimbledon, albeit only in mixed doubles, after more than 10 months off the tour.
“Just inspired by Serena,” said Venus Williams.
Navratilova, like many in the game, believes Venus and Serena Williams will retire together when the time is right. If he comes. The benefits of officially announcing retirement are few: a temporary boost in publicity and an end to random drug testing. In some cases, it can start the clock ticking on your retirement or entitle you to be elected to a sport’s Hall of Fame.
Retirement is perhaps more of a ritual than a necessity. John McEnroe, for one, never officially retired, a formality that in his case did allow him to continue to earn more for a while than some existing contracts.
“Well, look how well Tom Brady’s retirement worked out; it got a lot of attention and then it was, “Oh, I’ve changed my mind.” GOOD!” Navratilova said with a laugh. She added, “Are you asking a doctor or a lawyer how much longer you’re going to practice? People put thoughts in your head that might not be there otherwise.”
Federer has been hearing questions about retirement since he finally won the French Open in 2009, completing his run of singles titles at each of the four Grand Slams at the age of 27. Venus Williams, who went through a mid-career slump partly related to an autoimmune disease, has also been listening to them for more than a decade.
“When it’s my last, I’ll let you know,” she said at Wimbledon last year.
Here she is, back for more, just like her little sister, though maybe even the Williamses don’t know how much more. Navratilova does not recommend giving too much notice. When she announced that 1994 would be her last season, she regretted it.
“If I had it to do over again, I definitely wouldn’t say anything because it was exhausting; it was much more emotionally draining than it would have been otherwise,” she said. “For your own good, forget anything it can do for or against your brand. I wouldn’t announce it until it’s finished.”
And it wasn’t that. She came back and eventually won the US Open mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan in her true last match of the tournament at age 49, one of the best final acts in tennis.
“My thing is, if you enjoy playing and you still really get something out of it, then play,” Navratilova said. “Venus was playing around and people say she’s hurting her legacy. No, those titles are still there.