Off their rocker

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:54 AM ET

The comeback. It seems sometimes that no elite athlete's career is complete without at least one.

The latest is Martina Hingis, who took her first tentative steps on the glory -- or gory, as the case may be -- trail last week. She doesn't need the money. She said it's not the glory. She is educated, witty, intelligent, well-spoken and three years removed from the day injuries forced her from the game. She is also needy.

"The environment of sport is very clear-cut," said Hernan Humana, a professor of sociology at York University, explaining the difficulties athletes have when letting go of their games. "In sports, you either win or lose. In real life the lines are not so clear. Life is very uncertain. Athletics have an outcome right away: Officials blow the whistle. You win, you lose. Real life doesn't come with a scoreboard."

And, so, Hingis begins again; most newspapers carrying news of her beating Venezuela's Maria Vento-Kabchi 6-2, 6-1 in a preliminary match at the Australian hardcourt championships in the small print. The sports world stands still for none and Hingis memory has been eclipsed by new heartthrobs such as Maria Sharapova and the mega-machine that is the Williams sisters.

Hingis turned pro at 14, made her first million before she legally could drive a car -- and she had a smile that could turn a young man's knees to jelly. She won five Grand Slam singles titles (three Australian Open, one Wimbledon, and one US Open) and nine Grand Slam doubles titles.

But when she faces Vera Zvonareva in her first-round match at the Australian Open tomorrow, she faces an improbable mountain to climb. It is one that many athletes before her have attempted. Hockey's Mario Lemieux and cycling's Lance Armstrong shook off cancer and returned to glory. Gordie Howe started a second hockey career after 40. Michael Jordan is peerless. But more often, comebacks simply don't work. Boxers are like the moles on those midway games: Every time they get bopped on the head they just pop up somewhere else. Dave Cowens, Magic Johnson, Bob Cousy, Jim Palmer, Mark Spitz all tried. American skier Bill Johnson almost killed himself attempting a comeback in the downhill.

What drives them?

John Corlett, dean for the faculty of applied health sciences at Brock University said, assuming injury isn't involved, "an athlete's decision to retire has often not been thought about very well. As it plays out over a year or two they think: 'What was I thinking?' "

Joanne Malar, perhaps the best swimmer in Canada never to win an Olympic medal, remembers well why she quit after the 2000 Games; then tried to come back three years later.

"At the 2000 Olympics I remember my coach (Jan Bidrman) telling me, 'Joanne this time is the best time of your life,' " said Malar, today an editor and reporter with CH TV in Hamilton. "I thought he was crazy. I thought if this is the best time of my life, I couldn't imagine a more difficult time. The Olympics before I was fourth and the girl that won later got caught for steroids; In 2000 I was supposed to win a medal and came fifth.

"So, I should've been a medallist. I was physically exhausted, emotionally spent, under a lot of pressure and kind of cracking a bit. I wasn't having fun. When I retired that first time I thought about it for six months but I needed a break. I didn't know whether that would be for six weeks, six months, or forever."

Sociologists and psychologists point to five reasons that professional athletes make comebacks:

"Sometimes, if they retire because of injuries" Humana said, "athletes come back to prove something they didn't quite accomplish the first time, although I don't think that's the case with Martina because she is someone who has already won almost everything in her sport. But, a comeback can bring closure ... some feel they need to close the cycle."

Notes Malar, "Martina is a lot like me in that we both quit for three years and both tried to make comebacks at about the same age. I'd been to three Olympics. I wasn't naturally talented. I had to work hard and I was proud of how many finals I made but ... the medal eluded me and it was the only international gold medal I hadn't won; I'd won at the world championships, the Pan Am and Commonwealth Games.

"The last two (Olympics) I was less than a second from winning a medal," Malar said, "and I still don't know how many of those girls ahead of me were on steroids. So, yeah, when I left the first time I wish I had won a medal."

Malar insists, though, that it was more a longing to return to competition itself that sparked her comeback then attempting to win a medal she had been cheated.

"You miss the atmosphere. The camaraderie. You know that there's a very short time you can be an elite athlete and I started mentally to want to train, to swim, again."

Fuzzy planning

"When they retire athletes often don't have a purpose any more," said Corlett. "A guy like Isiah Thomas played basketball all his life ... when he retired he never looked back. He closed one door and walked across the street and entered the business stuff that he already had started. He had developed a life outside of basketball. As an athlete he already had something to retire to."

Malar's retirement was an escape after her perceived disaster at the 2000 Games.

"As an athlete I can remember thinking I can hardly wait to get into the working world because anything has to be better than this," she said, laughing.

"I wouldn't have to train four or five hours a day; I wouldn't be this tired. But you don't see the flip side that you still get tired but instead of a physical drain in the real world there's an emotional drain of working every day."

By 2003 Malar was entering triathlons and thinking about Ironman competitions. It wasn't a big leap back into the pool.

In Hingis' case, she retired to university but she also noticed, as a TV commentator, that Lindsey Davenport and Mary Pierce have remained competitive into tennis' middle age.

"Coming back can be a positive thing if it's for the right reasons; if you're happy, if she just wants to play a little more tennis. That's a good thing," said Corlett, "but if you're coming back because you're not prepared for life after tennis then you're just putting off the inevitable problem."

So Washington Redskins' guard Ray Brown clings to his job like a drowning sailor to a lifeboat at the advanced age of 43.

"I don't want to go home and spend all my time around my wife and her telling me to start cleaning the house," he told USA Today. "I'm a very motivated player."

But next autumn will be his rookie season with a dust rag. As Corlett said, "it's inevitable."

Adrenalin rush

Many athletes never find the same excitement in life that they did in sport.

"It is the peak. Nothing will ever give them the same sense of pride and achievement on a daily basis," Corlett said.

So, Michael Jordan discovered he could only play so much golf; Rickey Williams found out rolling doobies got a bit tedious and Hingis discovered studying English at Cambridge wasn't the same as the competitive fire that she felt on a tennis court.

"There's not the urgency in daily life where you've got to make a decision in the next 30 seconds because you're down by two. They miss that adrenalin rush," Corlett said. "For too many athletes, unfortunately, they never get past the idea that there can be anything better than that. They wind up kind of living the life of Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days. You know, they'll pass you by."

Malar recognizes the symptoms. "There's a huge depression that way. You miss the adrenalin rush of competition and being a name. Every day you get an adrenalin rush just training ... those happy hormones, the endorphins, kicking in, and then when you work full-time getting active for 30 minutes a day is a big deal.

Malar believes that's why so many athletes get into public speaking and television.

"I love it. It's the closest thing to performing physically: You're given a task every day, it's high pressure, you have to perform and you have to deliver. At the end of the day you can evaluate your performance and see where you can do better."

Money

Corlett said most athletes have so much pride and love for their sport they won't come back and embarrass themselves.

"But, you do see it, especially in boxing," said Humana, "guys like Mike Tyson who don't change their lifestyles and end up needing the money."

Corlett said someone making a comeback at Hingis' age makes sense "but when you quit at 41 you know you're never going back to this unless you're someone like George Foreman and some of the other athletes who come back as slightly overweight men pounding each other around like they were 25 and not realizing that this is embarrassing to them and everybody else watching them.

"Why are they doing it? It's all they know how to do."

Fame

Many athletes don't like to admit this but, Humana said, once they retired "they think where are the journalists? Where are the cameras? It's not just the money but the glory and the fans and how people pay respect to them. All of a sudden they find themselves pretty alone. It's a bit of social isolation."

Malar said it shouldn't be surprising that elite athletes have trouble adjusting.

"Athletes are used to a lot of things that are very external," Malar said. "You're one of the best athletes in the world and rightly or wrongly a lot of your personality and self-esteem is based on that. When you step away your body changes and athletes have a hard time physically and mentally adjusting. A lot gain weight. A lot get depressed."

As volleyball coach for Canada's national team, Humana retired after his third Olympics, the 2000 Games in Sydney. Even in his own modest athletic endeavours he admits to having felt a sense of loss after retiring. Corlett, as a former university basketball coach, had similar feelings.

"They face a huge change," said Humana. "They have known for so many years a life of glory and fame and adulation and all of a sudden, boom, they are regular folk. There are so many cases of athletes struggling with life after sport, with alcohol and drugs."

Or, with comebacks.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, the French Open champion who had not played since October, over-powered Hingis 6-3, 6-3 in the first round of the Sydney tournament, Hingis' second event. It was the first time in almost four years Hingis had faced a top-10 player and she struggled to keep pace.

It's a public battle with which Malar is familiar. Like Hingis, her comeback was heralded in the media. Her picture showed up on the side of Cheerios boxes.

"When I made my comeback I finally understood what Jan had been saying about this being the best time of my life," Malar said. "I really appreciated every day. I was so happy. I understood my job was to get in the best physical condition that I could. And what a nice job that is. Every day I was surrounded by friends that I had a laugh with; we're all getting in shape and travelling the world together and I was surrounded by people who wanted to help me.

"My coach, my psychologist, my massage therapist, my physiotherapist. Everyone was there to help YOU. Now what kind of other jobs are out there that are about you and making you the best?"

Reality bit hard when she missed qualifying for the Olympics.

"When I retired in 2004, even though I didn't make the Olympics, I felt like a huge success because I'd taken on the challenge of making the comeback," Malar said. "To me, 99% of people would say don't do it because the odds are you're going to fail. But I loved the experience."

Hingis does have some advantages. She has put her career and reputation on the line in a game that is sometimes as much about perception as reality, which might not be a bad thing for her.

She has a personality that fits the mould of the successful pro athlete of the 21st century: Bright, bubbly. Hingis was twice rated among FHM magazine's 100 sexiest women, and her doubles partnership with glamour girl Anna Kournikova in the late 1990s and early 2000s attracted a great deal of attention.

Better even, behind Hingis' sugar-coated exterior there always has been a player more competitive than Amelie Mauresmo, more dedicated than the Williams sisters and tougher than Pierce. And, when it comes to the smarts, she's up a set on Sharapova.

The question remains whether she still can play the game.

Perhaps it is a question that she needs to have answered more for herself than for those who merely watch.


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