Anne Miller Heads List Of WTA Tour Departures

By Chris Gerby
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Just as she was beginning to enjoy the sport and make a name for herself, Anne Miller has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the WTA Tour. The 21-year-old baseliner was having the best season of her four-year professional career. A solid run to the third round of the U.S. Open brought her to a personal best ranking of #43 in the world. Wins over the likes of Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce had marked Miller as a young player on the rise. Her nationally televised match against Monica Seles at the Open won her a spate of new fans who were as impressed by her good looks as by her powerful groundstrokes. Then, virtually without warning, Anne Miller traded her racquets for a college course load.

After a second round loss at Wimbledon, Miller had made up her mind to enroll at the University of Michigan. The decision was in part financial. Life on the pro tennis circuit is hardly the glamorous existence you might imagine, particularly when you're not a superstar. Thanks to her coach's salary and the costs of traveling around the world, Miller was not making much money as a tennis player. She never landed a clothing or racquet contract, so there were no big sponsors paying her way. It's quite surprising that a player so talented and charismatic would go without so much as agency representation, but for whatever reason, Anne slipped through the cracks.

Of course, if every player failing to rake in big dollars called it a career, the WTA rankings list would be a good deal shorter than it is. Many pursue their tennis dreams even while wading through red ink. For example, young American Meghann Shaughnessy recently cracked the Top 100 for the first time since turning pro in April of 1996, but says she'll need to reach the Top 50 to turn a profit. To stick with this sport under those conditions takes unflinching dedication and confidence, qualities Miller has never really exemplified. She loves tennis, but admits an unwillingness to put in the year-round hard work needed to become a champion.

On top of all that, Miller has rarely been able to have fun on the court. A high-strung player who tends to criticize herself during matches, she has sometimes been too competitive for her own good. The more laid-back approach she took at this year's U.S. Open paid off. It was Miller's best Grand Slam performance and she actually had a good time in the process. You could see how the Midland, Michigan native might have second thoughts about her retreat into semi-retirement.

As a matter of fact, she's hoping to squeeze in a couple tournaments this fall, assuming she can find time between her Spanish, geography, and statistics classes. For all we know -- for all she knows, even -- Anne Miller may fully rededicate herself to the sport at some point in the future. She's hoping the college experience will give her some perspective and allow her to figure out just where tennis ranks among her priorities. As refreshing at is to see a gifted athlete opt for school over sports, I for one hope she'll be back.

In a sport often represented by arrogant prima donnas, Miller seems to be a genuinely nice, down to earth person. The animated chat she and Seles engaged in following their match was a sign of how popular Miller has been with her fellow players. She was just as friendly with the fans at the U.S. Open, cheerfully signing autographs and posing for pictures. Anne surely will be missed.

As Anne Miller bids the sport a tentative farewell, a number of her peers are making less ambiguous exits. While legends like Navratilova and Evert retire amid great fanfare, there was no such hoopla for the likes of Ginger Helgeson Nielsen, Patricia Hy-Boulais, Mercedes Paz, Rene Simpson, and Ann Wunderlich.

Rene Simpson

Simpson enjoyed a productive 10-year career, winning three doubles titles and once ranking #70 in the world in singles. However, the Toronto native's transition from player to coach was largely overlooked, even in her homeland. Simpson's final event on Canadian soil was the du Maurier Open in August, where she and partner Sonja Jeyaseelan lost a first round doubles match played in virtually the middle of the night. That evening was so chilly that Jeyaseelan joked it would be snowing by the time they took the court. Simpson got a better send-off at the U.S. Open, as she and Jeyaseelan teamed up to beat Mirjana Lucic and Monica Seles before falling in the second round.

Ann Wunderlich

For Ann Wunderlich, the end also came at Flushing Meadows. Unfortunately for her, it was shrouded in the obscurity of qualifying. A Top 30 player under her maiden name, Ann Grossman's career essentially ended when she married U.S. Olympic swimmer Eric Wunderlich in the fall of 1997. Contractual obligations brought Ann back for the '98 season, but her heart apparently wasn't in it. A string of losses and some time off sent her ranking into a nosedive. The gregarious 27-year-old gave the U.S. Open one last go, but bowed out in the first round of qualifying. Ironically, Wunderlich's very last match was a doubles qualifying loss in which she teamed up with none other than Anne Miller.

Patricia Hy-Boulais

Like Wunderlich, Patricia Hy-Boulais will finally be settling into normal married life following years of globe-trotting on the WTA Tour. Depending on how you look at it, Hy-Boulais ended her playing days as either a heroine or a pariah. Late in '97, Hy-Boulais led an overthrow of the player association's board of directors, arguing that the interests of lesser-known players like herself were being ignored. A good deal of controversy and legal wrangling ensued, all of which apparently took a toll on the Canadian veteran's game. She was once a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open, but her mostly fruitless '98 campaign ended with a first round exit from the qualifying draw.

Ginger Helgeson Nielsen

The U.S. Open qualies were big on farewells. For Ginger Helgeson Nielsen, the singles swan song was a heartbreaker -- a 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 loss to Amanda Grahame in the second round of qualifying. Nielsen (who dropped her maiden name shortly before retiring) had the best win of her career at the U.S. Open, upsetting Conchita Martinez there in '94. A few months later she climbed to #29 in the rankings. However, a wrist injury suffered in April 1995 required surgery and kept her off the tour until late in the '96 campaign. She was never quite able to recapture her previous success in singles, but just the fact that she was out there playing close, competitive matches was itself a victory.

Mercedes Paz

In her last couple years on the tour, Nielsen was primarily a doubles specialist. The same could most definitely be said of Mercedes Paz, a WTA Tour fixture since 1984. The Argentine long ago ceased to be much of a singles threat, but right up to the end she was a force to be reckoned with in doubles, where she had a formidable 23 titles to her credit. Just last year, she teamed with Pablo Albano to reach the U.S. Open mixed doubles final. Like Gigi Fernandez a year earlier, Paz formally announced the end of her singles career not long before amending that into an overall retirement.

Naoko Sawamatsu

The mass exodus of established pros didn't end there. A few weeks later, Naoko Sawamatsu confirmed that the Toyota Princess Cup in Tokyo would be the final tournament of her career. Sawamatsu went out in style, pushing Seles (seemingly a magnet for retirees) to three sets in front of her hometown fans. Although just 25 years old, Naoko accomplished enough in her career to be quite revered in Japan. After Kobe -- the city where she had been living -- was ravaged by an earthquake in early 1995, Sawamatsu went on an inspirational run to the Australian Open quarterfinals. She even donated some of the prize money to the disaster relief effort in Kobe.

A second generation star whose mother and aunt had played professionally, Sawamatsu was the first Japanese player ever to reach the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. Her rather surprising retirement capped a month of WTA Tour goodbyes. They may not have been internationally recognizable, but Sawamatsu, Paz, Nielsen, Hy-Boulais, Wunderlich, Simpson, and Miller were all very accomplished players whose departures are worthy of note. I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.

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