Safarova says goodbye

 - Kate Battersby

At Roland-Garros, scene of her greatest triumphs, Lucie Safarova plays her last match.

Lucie Safarova farewell match 2019©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Not many of us can pinpoint the moment of our career retirement to the minute. But that time came for Lucie Safarova at 4.20pm on Day Four of Roland-Garros 2019, in the sheltered surroundings of Court 4.

The two-time Roland-Garros doubles champion chose to end her playing days on the Paris clay – the scene of her greatest achievements, including her singles runner-up spot to Serena Williams in 2015, which propelled her to No.5 in the world.

Safarova intended to fight her last campaign alongside her great partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, with whom she won five Grand Slam titles. But just four days before this tournament began, the American’s longstanding problems with her right knee made playing here impossible, so Safarova’s friend Dominika Cibulkova stepped into the breach.

Against Sofia Kenin and Andrea Petkovic, the scratch pairing leapt out to an early break, but hope died early. From 4-2 in the first set, they could not win another game. The end was marked with hugs between all four players, and Safarova’s playing career was done.

Lucie Safarova Dominika Cibulkova 2019©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Little over one hour into her retirement, she told “It feels good. Of course a lot of emotions, but mostly positive. I have great memories to cherish. I'm really happy about my career, how it was. I enjoyed today. It's really nice to be back here, to see everyone that I know for so many years from the WTA and the players and from the tournament here, and to say a proper goodbye. It's very special that it's here in Paris.”

Among those sending her their best was Roger Federer, who said: "Congratulations to Lucie on an amazing career. I'm very happy for her that she can do it [retirement] on her terms. I always enjoyed watching her play."

So many have warm feelings for Safarova. Sitting quietly in a hidden garden near the Roland-Garros museum, she mused on her memories of the tournament down the years.

“Roland-Garros is super-special to me, the nicest memories in singles here – I always remember the 2015 final and the atmosphere on Chatrier,” she said. “And of course winning the doubles twice with Bethanie was an amazing time. I love Paris as a city, so it was right to play the last match of my career right here.”

Retirement is a big deal for everyone in all walks of life, but for the sporting elite it marks the end of everything they have ever known.

“I can’t remember a time when I was not a tennis player, because I began when I was age three,” said Safarova. “I don’t think it’s possible to prepare 100 per cent for this change in life. It’s the biggest decision in an athlete’s life and also the hardest. I don’t think anyone else faces quite the same moment, having worked towards something for so long and then suddenly you have to start something completely new.

“I made this decision slowly, over the last year. I realised it was all more of a struggle health-wise, and the travelling too. It didn’t make me happy in the way that it used to. I talked with friends and family, and began to think about how I wanted to finish. I didn’t want to go down the rankings and grind in the qualies, ending up with worse memories. So I made the decision to start something new, and doing that made me happy.”

Safarova, 32, is big on happiness, and big on thinking generally. Two weeks ago she posted a quote on Twitter attributed to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

She is certain this is the right decision, although it is a difficult one. She has no immediate professional plans, just a very long holiday, although she may complete her unfinished degree in psychology.

“I'm sure I will be back somehow in tennis, connected, because I really enjoy the sport. Tennis teaches you a lot – there’s a lot of pressure and most weeks you lose. It’s not easy but very challenging. I’m very grateful for it. I just want to do something else for a while and then see what else I can be good at.

“I'm looking forward to skiing, which I couldn’t do for 15 years in case I got injured. I’m not going to miss the travelling, the time-zone change, and working hard even if you're tired, or a little bit injured. I've been working really hard since I was little. But of course I love the sport. I'm sure I will miss the competition a little bit. I hope people remember me as a fun player who they liked to watch.

"It's been great… And it's been enough. I'm really looking forward to starting a new chapter.”