“I can feel it now on my body,” says Julia Görges. “It’s less tension, less pain because the mental stress which affects your body and affects your mind a lot, this has gone away.”
Görges, who has been a constant presence on the tour for the past decade, was describing the perpetual tensity that has accompanied her career. Now, finally, it is all gone. In October, the 32-year-old German unexpectedly retired.
Covid-19 has affected the sporting world in as many ways as it can, but one of its more subtle consequences is the mirror it has held up to older athletes, forcing them to confront the mortality of their careers and to decide whether they truly have the will to carry on in a period that has challenged the motivation of all.
In August, Mike and Bob Bryan, winners of 16 and 18 men’s slam doubles titles, respectively, announced their ending. Before the world changed, they had planned one final joyride across the earth, stopping off at every major event one last time before clocking out in front of their home crowd at the US Open. When the tour returned behind closed doors, the 42-year-old twins decided they did not want their final memory of tennis to be the silence of an empty stadium. They quietly departed into the night.
The uncertainty has also reflected on some people’s resilience. The most dominant athlete of her time, Simone Biles, despaired as she contemplated whether she could endure the physical and mental strain of gymnastics until the rescheduled Olympics next year. She eventually resolved to continue.
The 2019 Wimbledon semi-finalist Barbora Strycova entered the season with retirement in the back of her mind. The 34-year-old decided to take things one day at a time and before long, the season had ended and she was preparing for another year.
Görges and Strycova are close contemporaries but their reactions to this period could not have been more different. Görges burst into public consciousness nine years ago, scuppering the then world No 1, Caroline Wozniacki, to win Stuttgart, the biggest tournament on home soil, as a wildcard.
After establishing herself in the top 20 for two years in her youth, an experienced, streetwise Görges returned to form by reaching the top 10 in 2018 with a tenacious run to the Wimbledon semi-finals. Between those handsome seasons, the pressure that followed her first wave of victories was suffocating and it took a long time for her to recover.
“It threw me into the water of having a lot of expectations on my shoulders and people expected a lot from me,” she says. “It was a tough period because suddenly I was top 20 and I didn’t have the experience of how to deal with it.”
The tennis season never really ends. It presents both a gift and a curse for players who must retain their focus from January to November, living their lives out of suitcases as they chase the sun around the world before starting all over again a few weeks later.
Görges describes the tour as a big zoo and its grind as a sustained source of tension in the body. “I figured out how energy-sucking it can be, always being on-site and living tennis the whole day: 24/7,” she says.
Such is the intensity of the schedule, sometimes long-term injuries can even be helpful, forcing players to jump off the carousel and to return with greater perspective born out of the daily lessons of life.
Görges, who competed in 50 consecutive slams until this year, says she only really contemplated the sacrifices required when she would prepare to fly across the world to Australia so shortly after the season was over: “It was always in the off-season, when you were at home for two weeks and then you have to leave and repack your stuff, it always came into my mind: ‘Wow, I could do some other things.’”
When the world stopped in March as a result of the pandemic, a consequence of five suspended months was the opportunity for players to do those other things. In many cases, it was the first time since childhood they had even spent consecutive months under the same roof, sleeping in their own beds.
For Görges, it was a simple opportunity to live. She spent time with family and friends and for a few short months she navigated a completely different existence after two decades of tennis. Even as she trained and prepared for her return, her days moved at a more leisurely pace, no longer defined solely by her own discipline. She not only found that she liked it, but that she did not need tennis.
“It just showed me how nice life can be away from tennis, too,” she says. “If you just have it for two to three weeks like in the off-season, [retirement] never comes to your mind, but if you have stayed away from the tour for five to six months, it just opens up a whole different new chapter.”
When Görges returned to the tour in September, she remained healthy and supremely fit, but it became clear that the will to push through hard days and to win on the court was not quite as strong. Despite entering lockdown with no intention of slowing, a month after her return she announced her retirement. And that was it. She says that she is happy, relaxed and looking to the future. Unlike some others athletes, retirement was never a source of concern for her. A five-month dress rehearsal certainly helps.
“I knew that at some point it’s also nice to step away and not be in the spotlight all the time,” she says quietly before laughing to herself. “I’d rather be at home, staying in pyjamas every day and no one sees me.”