While sporting immortals like Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis, Federer and Schumacher entertain the world well into their third (and even fourth) decade of action, many heroes have decided to call it a day in the year 2012. These are sporting icons we have grown up with and watched- faces that have defined our phases, childhood, teenage years and even adulthood. Let us take a look at these faces in a year that has either forced or urged them into a new, second innings of their illustrious careers:
‘Take this Walltz’
Rahul Dravid (Indian Cricket Team): The name that had defined an entire career eventually proved to be his downfall. If he wasn’t known as the Wall for 15 years, one doesn’t think those five ‘bowled’ dismissals Down Under would have woken up the cricket world to an inevitable reality. By the end of it all, he left the game on his own terms. He wasn’t pushed out, but he decided to set a standard for graceful retirements. If the younger stars weren’t going to break in, Dravid would have to leave the door open for them. He left as the best No. 3 Indian Cricket has ever known. He left after resurrecting himself one last time in England, before a long pointless Home Season that needed younger cricketers to be blooded. 8 Away losses on the trot broke the tightest of them all.
VVS Laxman (Indian Cricket Team): Dravid and Laxman can’t not be mentioned in the same breath ever since that fateful day in Kolkata 2001. And then Adelaide 2004, and many more such instances. The most underrated Indian batsman in a decade, this very very special player always hung onto his place in the Test squad with some sterling Steve Waugh-iqsue performances over the latter half of his career. Everytime he stepped out onto the field at no. 5, he was playing for a spot in the next series. As unfair as it was, this trend also came to define him, and earn him the admiration and respect of millions of cricket fans around the world. Grit and gumption that defied his laidback, languid style, he made fightbacks look beautiful and attractive on the eye. Again, he set the standard by leaving before a Home Series, and set the alarm bells ringing in a Test side that he had seen the best and worst of, in 2 years.
Andrew Strauss (English Cricket Team): 100 Tests. The man who took England to an unprecedented no. 1 in Tests, fell victim to his own legacy. Without going into the mud-slinging and bitter battles within, Strauss left the game after going down to South Africa at Home- a final nail in the coffin of a team that ruled the world just a year ago. He remains England’s most wily captain, and the most successful after Michael Vaughan. Test Series Wins against Australia (twice, Ashes), India, New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka were heavily offset by recent losses against Pakistan (whitewash), South Africa.
‘The good Strauss’
Mark Boucher (South African Cricket Team): Perhaps the greatest purist wicketkeeper after Ian Healy- the last of his kind (before batsman-keepers took over), Boucher’s career ended in relative tragedy. A blow to his eye in a tour game before the England tour ended his career prematurely, days before he was to play his last professional test series against the best team in the world. That his team dedicated their win to him only shows that he has been a crucial bolt in an electric South African era that saw him play under captains like Cronje to Pollock to Smith to AB De Villiers. His best mate, Kallis, carries on part of his legacy with his timeless journey.
Brett Lee (Australian Cricket Team): The smiling assassin announced his retirement from the limited overs format in July 2012, 2 years after he had retired from the Test format. After years of running in like the wind, and possessing a rare non-controversial bowling style for an out-and-out quick, Lee gave in to desperate calls by his body after a punishing season with KKR in IPL 2012. Lee will be remembered most by Indian fans for his fondness of the country, and Australia will be missing the link that helped them in the transition from a McGrath era to a Johnson era to a final Cummins era.
Fernando Gonzalez (Chile- Tennis): The Chilean ‘forehand’ will go down as one of South America’s greatest men’s players in ATP history. A double Olympic medalist, Gonzalez enjoyed immense success on the singles tour- finishing twice in the top 10 over this career. One of the rare players that made the quarter-final in each of the Slams, Gonzalez’s almost-moment came in 2007 when he stormed through to the Finals (annihilating Nadal on the way) to lose to an inspired Federer in the final. A former Junior World No. 1, Gonzalez will remain one of the players who actually lived upto his potential on the pro-circuit, and was near-unbeatable on his good days.
Ivan Ljubicic (Croatia- Tennis): The Croatian giant will be remembered for being able to make the absolute most of his potential and reach no. 3 in the world in an era that preceded the Rafa Nadal and Djokovic times. 2005 and 2006 saw him finish in the top 10, with Ivan consistently reaching the last four of most of the Masters and ATP500 tournaments. He underperformed in the Slams, however, reaching the last 8 only twice in his career. He represented a post-Ancic era for Croatian tennis, making up for lost time and talent of the latter.
‘The United States Champion of the World’
Andy Roddick (United States- Tennis): The most illustrious of these tennis names, Roddick ended his career at his favorite US Open, 10 years after he won his first and last Slam at New York. Roddick will go down as the greatest almost-men in sporting history, consistently finishing second to Roger Federer for a large period of 5 years between 2001-2007. His last hurrah came in 2009, when he was 2 points away from that elusive Wimbledon title, but it was not to be. The strongest US Men’s player since the Sampras and Agassi, Roddick will feel hard-done by with just ONE slam to his name over his lengthy career- out of 32 titles and 5 Masters trophies. Four Semi-finals at the Aussie Open, Three finals at Wimbledon, 2 at the US Open- there you have it. Ending 1 year (2002) as the World No. 1, though, will take away a lot of that pain. He will be remembered most for his post-match conferences, where his volleys and backhands looked a lot stronger than on court.
Mother Of a Player
Kim Klijsters (Belgium- Tennis): Super-Mom played her final game at the US Open 2012, much like Roddick, and left the game after a second innings that has defied logic and convention. In only her third tournament since her first retirement in 2007, back as a Mother and wife, Klijsters won the US Open in 2009, and went on one of the most dominating streaks in WTA history. She was always known as the Belgian No. 2 behind Henin for most of her career, but her comeback sealed her place at the top- now mentioned in the same breath as her more illustrious Belgian ‘backhand’ counterpart. What she couldn’t do for years till 2007, she managed to achieve after Henin’s retirement, winning back-to-back Slams at the US Open 2010 and Australian Open 2011, with a season-ending title thrown in between. 2011 saw a return to no. 1, in an era that was tarnished by the lack of competitiveness and speed in Women’s tennis. She took over from the Slamless Wozniaki, but soon fell back after an injury took her out of Wimbledon and the rest of the season. Her retirement has fast-tracked the incumbent Serena Williams, who is enjoying a fourth wind of her own career- dominating the tour like she should have for 10 years.