More than anything else, Shahar Pe’er simply looked happy.
It was surely a moment she had been dreading for years. But in front of a few dozen family members and close friends, all of the struggles of recent times seemed to vanish away.
After announcing her retirement
on Facebook five days earlier, Pe’er decided to avoid the conventional press conference and instead chose to speak publicly for the first time in a private party in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
Perhaps it was the fact she was talking to her loved ones rather than a room full of cynical journalists, or maybe it was the knowledge that the decision was final, but Pe’er looked relieved rather than mournful.
It had been a long time coming, but Pe’er’s retirement nevertheless marked the end of an era in Israeli sport.
It became clearer with every passing year that any lingering hope of Pe’er regaining her once elite status in the women’s game is fool headed, and having not played a competitive match in a year, everyone, including Pe’er, knew the end was near.
It is easy to forget now – especially considering Pe’er’s last win on the WTA Tour came way back in July 2015 – but Shahar will go down as one of the greatest Israeli athletes of all time.
The 29-year-old reached No. 11 in the world rankings six years ago, higher than any other Israeli tennis player. She was one win away from entering the top 10 in arguably the most competitive women’s sport there is in 2011.
Pe’er advanced to the quarterfinal stage of a Grand Slam tournament twice in her career, making the last eight at the Australian Open and US Open in 2007. She battled with the best of them, pushing the great Serena Williams to the brink in the quarterfinals in Melbourne, only losing 8-6 in the third set after 2 hours and 34 minutes.
Pe’er earned over $5 million from prize money during her career, which also included six singles titles on the WTA Tour.
A chronic shoulder injury limited her over the past two-and-a-half years and ultimately resulted in her retirement, a decision she only finally made three weeks ago.
“Every time I was experiencing a tough period I would ask myself if maybe this is the time to retire. Maybe now I have run out of gas, I’m suffering and it is time to say goodbye,” an emotional Pe’er told her friends and family.
“This always came after a run of defeats and not because of injuries. I would sit in my hotel room, unable to fall asleep after a defeat, crying, and would ask myself ‘what now?’. How do I lift myself from this? Do I want to lift myself? And am I capable of giving more of myself? The answer was always ‘yes.’ I would tell myself: ‘get a grip. You are a winner and an excellent player. Quit crying and start thinking about the next training session and the next tournament.’”
Pe’er said she followed the advice of her former agent Amit Naor.
“There are only two reasons to walk away from the game of tennis. If your body betrays you and doesn’t allow you to continue and when you no longer have a passion for the game,” explained Pe’er. “I would ask Amit maybe now is the time? But he would silence me and would say that when the time is right you will know.”
In her Facebook post, Pe’er wrote about how she lost her desire for the game of tennis and the intense way of life she had lived since she was a child.
“I look back on this experience with a huge smile, a lot of happiness and satisfaction. I am proud of all of my accomplishments, as well as the huge honor I was given to represent the state of Israel,” Pe’er added.
Pe’er has been in the spotlight for most of her life, winning her first senior national title at the age of 14 before taking the Junior Girls’ Australian Open title when she was 16. She played for Israel’s Fed Cup team since 2002, leading the blue-and-white to the World Group and a place among the top eight national teams in the world in 2008.
Pe’er also represented Israel in two Olympic Games, in Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
Pe’er was often the target of anti-Israeli protests, and in 2009 was barred from taking part in the prestigious tournament in Dubai, being denied a visa.
However, after the subsequent uproar which saw the organizers fined $300,000, Pe’er was allowed to compete in the $2 million event the following year and reached the semifinals.
Shahar highlighted the win over then 15th-ranked Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium in the opening round in Dubai as the biggest victory of her career, the only one after which she cried with joy.
Pe’er was never the quickest or strongest player on court, but she faced few opponents who wanted to win more than she did.
“Her success wasn’t built on talent or on her physique, but on self-belief, hard work and by battling every moment,” said Pe’er’s father Dovik, who was instrumental in his daughter’s career.
“Perhaps the reason she retired at a relatively young age is because she gave so much for so many years, so tennis-wise she is a lot older.”
Pe’er revealed that she was already on the verge of retiring in August 2014, not wanting to go on court for her qualifier in Montreal after spending the morning in tears due to the pain in her shoulder.
She eventually chose to continue as she wanted to leave on her terms.
She went all out in her preparation for 2016 after undergoing treatment on her shoulder, giving a comeback one last shot.
“I knew that it might be my last year on tour, but I entered it with a smile and knew it would be my choice,” Pe’er said.
For someone who was once consumed by the game, Pe’er seems surprisingly ready to leave it all behind. Perhaps it is the knowledge that she squeezed everything she could from herself in pursuit of tennis glory that allows her to move on without regrets.
“I’m so happy now. My life is good. I have everything,” said Pe’er with a grateful smile, excited ahead of the next stage of her life after an unparalleled career in local sports email@example.com