When Sports Heroes of Our Youth Retire...

...it makes us feel old. Well, maybe just a little.

These last two weeks have seen the retirement of two of the sporting world's most celebrated champion, albeit in different sports. In 2006, three sporting legends--Zidane, Agassi and finally Schumacher--have retired or announced their impending retirements. I don't really follow football, so I'll just talk about the two whose careers I followed: Andre Agassi and Michael Schumacher.

I didn't think much of Agassi when he first rose to prominence twenty years ago. I wasn't much of a tennis follower, but I was aware that the greats were Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. While those guys weren't exactly straightlaced types, especially McEnroe, there was something about Agassi's ostentatiously loud clothes and hypermullet that turned me off to him the same way I was perpetually turned off to the contrived "rebelliousness" of 80s bands like Metallica and Guns and Roses. Sure, he was the next big thing in tennis, but did he have to be so obnoxious about it?

When the Sampras/Agassi rivalry was in full swing, I was pro-Pete. Sampras, with his nice-guy (well, for the media, anyway) persona was a lot more appealing than Agassi's much more aggressive on and off court personality (sans the long, or any, hair at this point). And Pete had a killer serve. The nice guy won most of their encounters.

But not long afterwards, Sampras retired, and lo and behold, Agassi kept going, and going, and going, even managing to snag at least one grand slam title after his greatest rival had called it quits. And with that, Agassi won me over, even if I still didn't follow tennis that much after that. I was aware that Agassi was the oldest man out there, making one miracle after another.

When he retired earlier this month, there was something momentous about it, not at all like Pete Sampras' somewhat subdued exit from the sport. There was a nobility in it, especially when you saw how hard he'd pushed his body for love of the game. He may have left the court after losing a match, but bittersweet though it may have been, it still felt like a triumphant exit.

Andre, while your time has most certainly come, you will be missed.

Which brings us to Michael Schumacher.

There's not much here that I can say about Schumacher and his retirement that hasn't already been said elsewhere, but for some reason I feel the need to defend him one last time against his detractors (I know that only Jay Tan and I have gone on record saying we're Ferrari fans, I don't really know how everyone else feels).

Before dominating the sport for half a decade with Ferrari, Michael Schumacher struggled for four years with a car that was clearly inferior to the Williams and McLaren cars he lost out to from 1996 to 1999. It was he who raised Ferrari out of the doldrums and made them a force to reckon with, no mean feat considering that in 1998, the McLaren Mercedes cars were so much faster than everyone else that they could supposedly lap the entire field. He could have stuck to Benetton-Renault, the team that eventually became defending world champions Renault, but he chose what was then one of the worst teams in the paddock, with the idea of restoring some of its long lost luster.

And it is this that marks him as the greatest driver in the history of motor racing. Not Ayrton Senna, who floundered when McLaren's top designer Adrian Newey deserted them for rival Williams-Renault, not Alain Prost, who likewise always won with the fastest car under him. Certainly not any of the drivers that won world championships in cars designed by Newey, most of whom faded away shortly after leaving those teams, whether Williams or McLaren. Maybe Fangio can compare, but that was another era altogether, and F1 was not as insanely competitive as it is now.

Schumacher did not win his first world championship for Ferrari in 2000 with the fastest car in the field. He did not drive the fastest car in the field for many years; effectively, together with his team, he built it. He didn't bitch and moan about what a piece of crap his car was, even when he was losing hand over fist to his rivals (Senna did, by the way). He just learned from his losses, and came back to win another day.

Michael Schumacher wasn't some overnight sensation with a heavy foot and a pretty face, which is pretty much how you can describe the likes of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. He did make quite a splash early on with the extremely competitive Benetton team, but he chose the road less traveled and staked his future on a team that, at the time he joined it, didn't have much of a future. For four years we tifosi agonized with Michael and Ferrari as they endured one heartbreaking bridesmaid season after another (until they won their first constructor's title together in 1999), such that when he finally...finally beat Mika Hakkinen to the world title at Suzuka in 2000, we savored the culmination of nearly half a decade of hard work.

After keeping Ferrari on top for five years after that, Michael tasted mortality again last year when, after years of trying, the Formula One governing body, finally came up with a rule that hobbled Ferrari: no tire changes. Talk of his retirement started at that point, when people realized that he wasn't as invincible as he had been made out to be.

Although this year saw his resurgence, we still saw some chinks in Michael's armor, such as his controversial stop in Monaco and his desperate lunge for the finish line in Hungary. The guy may be the world's greatest driver, but like anyone else, he has his weaknesses. Assuming he wins the title this year, it would only be a matter of time before the FIA authorities would figure out another way to slow him down.

And that would be wrong. Schumacher and Ferrari overcame considerable odds to be where they were from 2000 to 2004, and they deserve every ounce of success they've enjoyed. Granted, the FIA is interested in making the sport more competitive and therefore preserving public interest in it, but to do it by screwing the best thing that ever happened to the sport just doesn't feel right.

So, all things considered, Michael did the right thing by finally announcing his retirement from F1 after 2006. He is leaving at pretty much the top of his game, whether or not he wins the title, and with a very capable successor in Kimi Raikkonen who, unlike Schumi when he joined up in 1996, has the benefit of the best possible car waiting for him.

It doesn't feel like so long ago that we first saw these athletes make their mark on their respective sports, and therefore feels strange that they should be bowing out. Although we certainly feel a little older for having seen careers come and go, at least we get to feel privileged to have witnessed something so special.


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