By Vinayakk Mohanarangan, Manas Mitul and Pulasta Dhar
It's never easy to say goodbye to your heroes.
The past few months in 2015 have been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster for cricket fans. Retirements happen every year but this year was a bit hard to take. There was Michael Clarke, Kumar Sangakkara, Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag. Then came Brendon McCullum's announcement too - all bonafide greats of a generation. The kind of players who will the make sport they play poorer for their absence.
That got us thinking - what have been the biggest sporting retirements since the turn of the millennium? The ones that made sports fans pause collectively and wonder: 'Now that he/she's gone, how will it change the way we follow the sport?' So we decided to go back in time and put together a list of 15 biggest retirements since 2000 -- not just in cricket. We have made an attempt to cover a plethora of sports, so fans of Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Shane Warne, Thierry Henry, Shaquille o'Neal - we are sorry we couldn't accommodate them.
So here's our list, entirely subjective, of the 15 sportspersons that sports fan miss watching the most.
1. Sachin Tendulkar
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way.
The mother of all retirements. The moment millions (or billions?) of cricket fans around the world knew was coming all along, but dreaded it anyways. The day that the cricketing blogosphere must have seen the biggest spike in activity. The farewell speech that everyone expected to be a little mundane but turned out to be a tear-jerker.
The day Tendulkar walked out to on a cricket field one last time — cricket, as we knew it, would never be the same again.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So here’s nearly 1,000 words on the picture that said it all when Sachin came out to bat for the last time at Wankhede.
2. Zinedine Zidane
When Zidane, at the height of his powers, jettisoned France to the historic FIFA World Cup win at home in 1998, televisions aired an image that will be long remembered. It was the iconic French landmark, Arc de Triomphe in Paris. On it the words 'Merci Zizou' were emblazoned. An entire nation thankful to a person for giving them the greatest gift of football — the World Cup.
Since Zidane's retirement after yet another stellar World Cup campaign that saw the great man come back to wear the French jersey and propel the team to the finals singlehandedly in 2006, every football fan, everyone who has ever felt something for 22 people on a field trying to put a single ball in a couple of nets, echoed that same sentiment: Thank you Zizou.
He was breathtaking, elegant and simple. Forget all he won — the Ballon d'Ors, the World Cup, the European Championship, the Champions League, La Liga, Scudetto. Forget all that. It's the joy of watching him play that's missing from the game. And there won't be anyone like him. We will see him come back one day as Real Madrid manager. But the sport no longer has Zizou the player.
3. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan has made Nike so much money, it's incalculable. No athlete has ever been proven as valuable to a brand as Jordan. The iconic Air Jordans, those hip pair of Nikes you owned in school, have to be the single greatest product tie-in with an athlete. Air Jordans were introduced in 1985 and are still going strong, 13 years after NBA's greatest star's retirement.
It was the third and final time that Michael Jordan retired in 2003 and he left behind a legacy. He was the guy who boosted NBA's global popularity in the 80s and 90s and took basketball out of the United States. Be it with his phenomenal play, his multi-million dollar advertisements and a Hollywood movie, Jordan is the undisputed king of NBA.
ESPN named him as the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. Need we say more?
4. Pete Sampras
Before Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic hijacked tennis there was only Pete Sampras.
Sampras, despite never getting any love from the French clay, reigned as the undisputed king of tennis before a shy boy from Switzerland came around.
Beautiful on the grass and clinical on the synthetic, Sampras was a curve ahead of his contemporaries. He enjoyed an electric rivalry with compatriot Andre Agassi, providing tennis fans with some unforgettable matches. Sampras won four of the five grand slam finals in which the two Americans featured, the last of which came at the 2002 US Open, when Sampras beat Agassi for a final time before retiring.
The rivalries among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have replaced the excitement of watching Sampras vs Agassi, but since his departure there hasn't been an American men's player who could take up his mantle.
Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slams might have been broken, but his legacy remains intact.
5. Ricky Ponting
Ricky Ponting was earmarked to be a superstar - the next big Australian hope - when he broke on to the cricketing scene in 1995. Despite being in and out of the side, and in and out of form, Ponting’s talent was never in question. That’s one of the reasons even a three-match series in India where he made 17 runs in five innings at the turn of the century (remember Harbhajan Singh? Remember VVS Laxman?), Ponting continued to have his team’s trust.
And boy, did he repay that. Not just by becoming one of the greatest batsmen the game has ever seen but by leading Australia through an era of near-unprecedented dominance. Unlike Steve Waugh before him, who was known for his nous and grit, Ponting was at the forefront of Australia’s stronghold of cricket with his sheer batting prowess. Who can forget that blistering 100 in the World Cup final in 2003? That was one of the three World Cup titles that Ponting won, two as a captain.
With his retirement in 2012, after a period of transition that proved a bit much to handle for the Punter, the game saw the end of a glorious career, decorated with championships – including the ‘Final frontier’ (a Test series win in India) that had eluded Steve Waugh. His numbers speak for themselves – over 27,000 runs and 71 hundreds at the international level – but Ponting was a winner, and a serial one at that.
6. Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher has been one of sport's greatest champions and also one of its greatest tragedies. The German won seven F1 Championships, two with Benetton and an astonishing five consecutive ones with Ferrari. A charming champion, Schumacher was a household name and post Ayrton Senna, Schumacher took F1's popularity to its peak.
Schumacher retired in 2006 after losing out on the Championship to Fernando Alonso. He made a comeback with Mercedes in 2010, but without much success. In 2012, after two seasons, he retired for a final time.
But it was in December 2013 that the world of sports got the real shocker. A skiing accident in which Schumacher hit his head on a rock, left him with serious injuries and he was consequently put in induced coma for recovery. Exactly two years later today, he is still recovering. But the situation looks grim as the injury has left him in paralysis.
There can be nothing more painful than to see a beloved F1 champion, for whom speed was a way of life, paralysed in a wheelchair. The world and his fans miss him and wish for one more comeback from the motorsport legend.
7. David Beckham
What can be said about David Beckham? Great footballer, England captain, global icon, excellent ambassador for the game, a role-model for aspiring millions, posh, good-looking, humble, and over all a great guy. No one can hate him.
What Beckham has done for the sport is unprecedented. He has taken it across the stretch of the globe — from Asia to America. His stint with LA Galaxy opened the floodgates for European players to take MLS into notice and ushered in a revolution in the United States. He led the charge to bring the Olympics to London in 2012.
From being the highest paid sports star to being married to a Spice Girl, Beckham is the first true marketed football icon. And he was a bloody good player as well. Said to have a magical right foot, his exquisite free-kicks, long balls and passes made everyone's heart skip a beat. And how can one forget that moment when a young Beckham scored from the halfway-line for Manchester United.
Fans will remember his emotional farewell at PSG for years to come, when they saw a man, who had everything that one could wish for, shattered and in tears when he left behind the one thing he loved the most — football. What a guy.
8. Cathy Freeman
Australia is a nation boasting of sporting greats in so many fields. Be it cricket, tennis, hockey, rugby or athletics, the list of people who belong at the top along with the very best across the globe is very long. But for the one who mattered the most – to the country, to the sport, to the symbolism of what sports can achieve – no one can come close to Cathy Freeman.
For many sports fans, the defining sporting event that marked the arrival of the new millennium was the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Be it the Opera House lit up in night-time glory, or the Olympics rings shining bright across the face of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. And, of course, the significance of Cathy Freeman, a woman athlete of aboriginal descent, lighting the Olympic flame in her white storm-trooperish tracksuit.
She did not stop there. Her true moment of glory was yet to come. In her green, hooded track-suit, Freeman went on to win the 400m gold medal. She was already a great athlete coming in to the much-awaited race. But to do it front of her own countrymen – with the entire nation cheering her on – Freeman reserved her best for the turn of the millennium.
“This was Australia's longest minute. This was the breathless, unforgettable minute. The 112,524 people at Olympic Park that night - a record for the stadium - will never forget it,” is how Sydney Morning Herald put it. Unforgettable indeed.
9. Gary Kasparov
In a game that is renowned for longevity and teenagers breaking out to reach the top of the world, Gary Kasparov was arguably the greatest of them all. His comeback from the jaws of defeat to Anatoly Karpov in 1985, to then become the youngest World Champion at the age of 22, is a stuff of legends. Kasparov, astonishingly, did not relinquish his position atop Chess rankings from then since his retirement.
While his most notable rivalry was with Karpov, Kasparov and Vishwanathan Anand shared a bit of a fractious one as well. They took on each other only once in a World Championship match – in 1995, famously at the World Trade Center in New York – which Kasparov won. But lately, ever since Kasparov was revealed to be part of the team assisting Magnus Carlsen (the heir to Kasparov’s throne, arguably), the two have run into some personal verbal volleys – with Anand saying Kasparov is making remarks about him maybe because he’s missing the action of playing chess.
Oh, and after his retirement in 2005, he has also been taking on the biggest opponent there is: Vladimir Putin. He might have left chess in a poorer state, but to see Kasparov take on Putin is extraordinary.
10. Justine Henin
Serena Willliams, when the time comes that she will decide to retire, will go down as the greatest women’s tennis player – arguably, even the greatest female athlete – of all time. So, cast your mind back to wonder when was the last time any tennis player could challenge Serena and her sister Venus, at their peaks, on a consistent basis.
The answer comes from Belgium in the form of the Little Ms. Wonderful, Justine Henin. Along with compatriot, Kim Clijsters, the Belgians were the last memorable competitors to the might of the Williamses.
And Henin did it with considerable style too. More than one tennis writer called her the Roger Federer of women’s tennis. Billie Jean King, an all time great, had this to say when Henin retired for the first time in 2008. "I don't know why we're not talking about Justine Henin all the time because, for her size, she's the greatest athlete we've ever seen."
Henin’s best year on court was 2007 when she won the French-US Grand Slam double. At the US Open, she created a bit of history to become the first player to defeat the Williams sisters en route to a Grand Slam title. After a shock retirement in 2008, Henin made a spectacular comeback at the Australian Open in 2010, almost winning the title as a wildcard entrant – pushing Serena all the way in the finals. She retired again in 2011.
Henin's spot in this list could well have gone to Martina Navratilova - a legend in every format she participated in - but the Swiss' greatest exploits came before the turn of the century. Her second coming in Tennis, though remarkable, was more on the fringes.
But, the sight of Henin gliding around the court, volleying with aplomb and woof, that single-handed backhand is something tennis hasn't been privileged to see more often since.
11. Jonah Lomu
In the list of 50 greatest rugby players of all time, The Guardian called Jonah Lomu as rugby's version of Muhammad Ali. He was, to the surprise of very few, at top of the list - ahead of some famous names like the Springboks' World Cup winning captain Francois Piennar and All Blacks' great - the man who lead New Zealand to a famous World Cup win in 2011 - Richie McCaw. But even McCaw wouldn't hesitate to hand Lomu the tag of greatest ever.
Widely regarded as the game's first global superstar, the sight of Lomu bulldozing past the English players in the 1995 World Cup semifinal are iconic.
But even before the turn of the century, Lomu's greatest was behind him. His chronic kidney issues caught up with him - something a very few defenders managed to in a short but remarkable eight-year international career during which he made only 63 appearances. He holds the record for tries in a World Cup with 15.
His retirement from the sport in 2007 was one of regret for many a rugby fan, but his farewell to the world in November this year sent the sporting fraternity into mourning. The front page of the Irish Examiner, with one leaf falling from the All Blacks' Silver Fern logo, and NZ Herald's cartoon showing Lomu bulldozing his way through the pearly gates of heaven are images of such poignance that captured the impact he had on and off the field.
Lomu never won the World Cup with the All Blacks, but he won countless hearts and left the sport, and more sadly the world, in much poorer state than when he the sport found him.
12. Annika Sorenstam
Not often in sports you come across an athlete who is miles ahead of the competition. Annika Sorenstam, the Swedish-American golfer, was one of them. The mere fact that she is the only woman golfer who’s name is instantly recognisable in a male-dominated circuit speaks volumes about her achievements.
The numbers will tell their own story: 72 LPGA Tour titles and 10 Majors, over 22 million USD in career earnings and eight-time winner of the LPGA Golfer of the Year award. These are unmatched numbers in the last few decades in women’s golf.
But what truly set her apart is her participation in a PGA tour event when she teed off alongside the men at the Colonial Open in 2003 – first time in over 50 years that a woman achieved that feat. It rubbed off some professional golfers in the wrong way – Vijay Singh famously said he’d rather not lose to a woman and hope she misses the cut. But that is precisely what made her feat a generation-defining event.
“I hear from parents with daughters who say it really showed them that if they have a dream, they need to follow it,” Sorenstam said, recalling that event. “I think people connected with it because they could see themselves, that if they wanted to achieve something, they have to face their fears and take the opportunities that are there for them.”
13. Dhanraj Pillay
The foreword to Dhanraj Pillays’ biography, Forgive me Amma, goes like this: “[Dhanraj’s] life is a metaphor in the story of Indian hockey which always threatens to bloom, has brilliant moments, yet is unable to sustain the quality of performance. And Dhanraj’s career has been intimately interwoven with India’s victories and defeats in the last two decades. His failures were India’s failures and his triumphs were India’s triumphs.”
The man was indeed synonymous with Indian Hockey for the best part of the 90’s and early 2000’s. There are no accurate statistics on how many goals he scored for India but his impact on hockey went beyond the numbers. He was always at loggerheads with the management of India’s national game and was given a humiliating send-off when he was benched in his last game in Athens.
But at a time when Indian hockey is seeing a revival of fortunes, it is worth remembering the efforts of Dhanraj Pillay in never letting the fire extinguish -- so people like Sardar Singh could fan the flames and carry on the fight to restore lost glory.
14. Lance Armstrong The single greatest comeback story in the history of sports has to be Lance Armstrong. After nearly losing his life to testicular cancer – ‘my balls were the size of a good-sized lemon,’ he said once – to winning seven Tour de France titles, Armstrong scripted the most amazing story sports had seen. The sheer determination to convert himself from a really good single-day racer, to a endurance-cycle beyond compare, Armstrong wrote a script for his career that would not be out of place in a make-believe...
15. Floyd Mayweather
Love him or hate him, you cannot take away the greatest record in boxing history from Floyd Mayweather. The man, known more for showing off his cars, fancy homes, bling and net worth, is literally unbeaten in his professional career with a 49-0 record. He may rub people in the wrong way, but this is someone who is a quintiple champion -- conquering five weight categories with his defensive superiority.
At the point of his retirement, he held eight titles to his name. We're talking about a phenom, a beast.
Mayweather is as quiet inside the ring as he is loud off it. Until the final bell rings, you will not see him get too excited, but rather maintain a poker face and revel in his supreme self confidence. Mayweather may not return to the backpages, but the jewellery purchases and crass comments will keep him on page 3 for some time to come.
At the end of the day though, Mayweather is still undefeated.
Honourable mention: Sir Alex Ferguson
If a man not playing the sport could influence it so much.
Twenty-six years, 38 trophies, one club, one man. It was an end of an era, in the true sense of the phrase, at Manchester United, when Sir Alex Ferguson chose to retire on a high in 2013 after winning the Premier League in his final season. Since then, it's a an understatement to say he has been missed. One David Moyes and an ongoing Louis van Gaal later, Manchester United still find themselves in crisis.
Sir Alex was one of the last of a dying breed of managers, a 'knight of the old republic' one could say, keeping in mind that it's Star Wars season. The time, trust and control he enjoyed at Manchester United simply cannot be given to any other manager in current times. And his retirement has left a one 'Scottish old man plus one chewing-gum' sized hole in the managerial world. Over the years Sir Alex enjoyed great relationships with colleagues, peers and players, but he also pi**ed off a few people in the process. But by the end of his reign, everyone was standing to give him the deserved ovation.
Football has been "bloody hell" for Manchester United without him. And it will take some time and some man for the club to emerge out of his shadow.
If you feel strongly about any of the additions or omissions on this list, or just miss these guys as much as we do, let us know in the comments or tweet to us at @FirstpostSports
Do Check out Firstpost's collection on how the past 15 years transformed sports, entertainment, technology and more in F.Rewind.