Ashleigh Barty shocked the world when she announced her retirement on Wednesday just months after winning the Australian Open. But the world No. 1 tennis player isn’t the first elite athlete to retire despite being at the peak of her game.
Here is the list of athletes who retired on their terms rather than being eliminated through injury or deviating standards:
Date of retirement: October 6, 1993.
Age at retirement: 30
Successes: Michael Jordan was probably at the peak of his basketball prowess early in the 1993-1994 season. He had a treble with the Chicago Bulls and led the league in points per game in each of those years. He averaged a Finals record 41 points per game and became the first player in the NBA to win three consecutive Finals MVP awards. A year earlier, in 1992, he was part of the USA’s dream team, which beat every opponent en route to a gold medal at the Olympics. Yet just 17 games into the 1993-1994 season, Jordan announced his decision to retire.
Reason for retirement: Jordan stated he lost his desire to play basketball. In his autobiography, Jordan wrote that he was exhausted from playing on the Olympic team and had been considering retirement that year himself. He later said the murder of his father – a man he had looked up to – earlier that year had also played a role in his decision. After retiring from basketball, Jordan signed with a minor league baseball team. However, after a brief stint in the minor leagues, Jordan returned to the NBA a little over a year and a half later. [And completed another three-peat].
Retirement day: May 14, 2008
Age at retirement: 26
Successes: After a dominant 2007 season in which she won the French Open and the US Open, Henin had made a solid if unspectacular start to 2008. She won two tournaments on the WTA Tour, but also lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open – her first loss outside of the semifinals of a Grand Slam since 2002. She ended her career just before the French Open, where she was considered a favorite as a three-time defending champion.
Reason for retirement: Henin’s retirement came as a surprise as she had held the number one spot for 116 consecutive weeks and 14 consecutive months. She announced that she has no regrets about her retirement as she sees it as a release from a sport she has been focused on for two decades. She also said she will focus on her charity work and her tennis school. Henin would come out of retirement a few years later in 2010. Despite an impressive comeback – she reached the final of the Australian Open as a wildcard – Henin would retire a year later.
Age at retirement: 32
Successes: Bobby Fischer, a chess prodigy, stunned the world when he defeated Soviet Boris Spassky in 1972 to win what was then called the match of the century. While the US didn’t have a strong chess culture at the time, the Cold War and the fact that an American had overthrown the best player in the Soviet Union – a nation that had dominated the sport for the past quarter century – made Fischer a media sensation. At the time of his victory, Fischer had an ELO rating of 2785, the highest of any player at that point in history.
Reason for retirement: He stopped playing competitive matches after his win against Spassky, and then refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 after making a series of demands on the playing conditions, which his opponent had not agreed to. Fischer didn’t play a competitive game for almost 20 years before emerging from the gloom in 1992 to have a rematch with Spassky, which he would win.
Retirement: October 24, 2020
Age at retirement: 31
Successes: When Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement in the octagon shortly after forcing Justin Gaethje to knock over a triangle choke at UFC 254, he was perhaps the most dominant fighter in the promotion. He had just defended his UFC lightweight title for the fourth time, improving his career to 29-0 and 13-0 in the UFC. Nurmagomedov has never had a moment of trouble in his 13 fights in the UFC and arguably never lost a round.
Reason for retirement: In his post-fight interview, Nurmagomedov stated he had promised his mother he would not continue fighting without his late father, Abdulmanap, who died of COVID-19 just weeks before his final fight. “There’s no way I’m coming here without my father. It was the first time after what happened to my dad, when UFC called me about Justin, that I spoke to my mom for three days. She doesn’t want me to go fight without my father, but I promised her it would be my last fight. If I give my word, I have to follow it. It was my last fight here,” he said. Almost two years later, Nurmagomedov has stayed true to his word and started his own fight promotion.
Age at retirement: 22
Recent Achievement: Spitz was just 18 years old when he predicted he would win six gold medals in swimming at the 1968 Olympics. He had finished with two gold medals, a silver and a bronze medal. Spitz would repeat his prediction for six gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, but this time it would do even better, winning seven gold medals in Munich and setting a world record in each of those events. Spitz’s 9 gold medals in his career would put him second for most Olympic gold medals by an athlete, while his seven medals at Munich was the most won by a single athlete at a single Olympiad until Michael Phelps won eight in 2008.
Reason for retirement: Although Spitz became one of the most prominent Olympians, he retired shortly after the Munich Games. He was able to take his fame to commercial success, earning millions of dollars in endorsements and dabbling in multiple fields, including some roles as an actor.
Retirement: January 1983
Age at retirement: 26
Successes: Bjorn Borg won his sixth French Open title in 1981 and reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open in the same year, losing to John McEnroe both times. By the end of the year, he had held the No. 1 spot in the ATP rankings for 109 weeks, by which time he had won 11 Grand Slams.
Reason for retirement: Despite being physically fit, Borg only played a single tournament in 1982, losing in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters. He had lost interest in competing in the Pro Tour. Reflecting on his loss in the 1981 Wimbledon Championships final, Borg recalled: “When I lost I was shocked that I wasn’t even upset. That wasn’t me: losing a Wimbledon final and not being upset. I hate to lose.” Borg felt his desire to gamble was gone. Losing again to McEnroe in the US Open final, he left the stadium and headed straight to the airport before the awards ceremony had started. Borg eventually returned to the Pro Tour in 1991 but failed to match any of his previous successes.
Date of retirement: May 17, 1997
Age at retirement: 30
Successes: With the iconic band collar and a rare football genius, Eric Cantona became a legend at Manchester United. He won four Premier League titles in five years at the club, had songs written in his honor and manager Alex Ferguson considers him one of only four world-class players he has coached in his 26 years at the club.
Reason for retirement: Cantona retired after the 1996-97 season. Despite his success at the club, he felt the need to retire from his professional career. He came to this realization during Manchester United’s matches in the Champions League semifinals (where they lost both first legs 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund). While he would later say he was physically good enough to play another decade if he really wanted to, his heart was no longer in it. “I was very passionate about the game and always said if I lost that passion I would quit. Of course nobody believed me, when I lost that passion I retired. I have not looked back.”