It was the kind of story that made one do a double take. The Paolo Maldini? The retired footballer? The five-times European champion, former Italy captain and devilishly handsome H&M model? He’s a professional tennis player now? Are you sure? There was a temptation to assume it was nothing more than a joke that had spun out of control. It would have made sense if news had broken about Maldini becoming Milan’s manager. But tennis? At the age of 49?
After all, someone of Maldini’s standing would not have had to wait long for the offers to start rolling in if he had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a manager. Yet he has never sounded like a man driven by a desire to enter the cut‑throat world of coaching.
Maldini’s ambitions lay elsewhere and he pursued them away from the limelight, with the hunger of a competitor who spent 24 years at the top with Milan. Last weekend, however, word spread of his forthcoming tennis debut. The extent of his flair with a racket in his hand was no longer a secret. He had developed a taste for boxing after bringing down the curtain on his football career in 2009 but soon discovered a talent for tennis.
“Paolo’s gifted with a good serve in addition to some decent shots,” Stefano Landonio, his doubles partner, told Il Tennis Italiano. “He’s also improving his volleys and, while he may not be catching the eye in any particular part of his game, he does not have any weaknesses, either.”
Let’s not get carried away. Maldini isn’t about to challenge for the Wimbledon title. Instead he is set to appear alongside Landonio, a former world No975 who has been honing his fellow Italian’s game, at an ATP Challenger event in Milan this week.
But despite the intrigue, perhaps Maldini’s new direction is not so strange. He is, after all, merely following in the grand tradition of athletes who have switched sports. He is hardly the first footballer who has looked for a fresh start.
Curtis Woodhouse, say, was a promising England under-21 international who fell out of love with his chosen profession and only rediscovered the fire in his belly when he turned to boxing in 2006, earning his reward when he defeated Darren Hamilton to lift the British super‑lightweight title eight years later.
It might seem like pure greed to those of us who congratulate ourselves when we go five minutes without tripping over our own shoelaces, but some people are natural athletes who are capable of excelling at any physical activity. The former Manchester United and England footballer Phil Neville was one of the best schoolboy cricketers in the country when he was a teenager. Ian Botham was good enough to make 11 Football League appearances for Scunthorpe as a means to keep fit outside the cricket season, but as a teenager had wisely listened to his father’s advice to focus on the summer game.
One of the most impressive cases is Rebecca Romero who switched to cycling after winning silver in rowing at the 2004 Olympics. She did not find it easy. “I was probably about 10 months into it when people started saying that I actually looked like a cyclist rather than a rower on a bike,” Romero said.
But Dan Hunt, one of Britain’s top cycling coaches, had spotted her potential. “On a physiological level, the tests showed us that she had the capability to perform at the highest level,” he said. “The raw numbers that were coming out of the test were very, very impressive for a cyclist, let alone somebody who was coming at it from a different sport.” Romero won gold in Beijing in 2008.
It doesn’t always work out, though. The former sprinter Dwain Chambers failed in his attempts to make it in rugby league and NFL, while Justin Gatlin also discovered that simply being able to run fast isn’t the secret to becoming an elite American football player. Andrew Flintoff enjoyed his only professional boxing bout but most experts agreed that the former cricketer did not possess enough skill or knowhow to justify him getting in the ring again. “The day I decided to climb into a boxing ring for a professional fight was probably on the side of stupidity,” Flintoff later admitted.
Yet there is nothing wrong with giving something a go, even if Michael Jordan’s flirtation with baseball raises a few smirks. It was shortly after the first of his first three retirements from the NBA when the basketball legend signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox in February 1994. Jordan’s recently murdered father had always wanted him to play baseball, but he hadn’t picked up a bat since high school and found that he wasn’t welcomed with open arms. “He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him,” Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners said. “I’d like to see how much air time he’d get on one of my inside pitches.”
Sports Illustrated controversially accused Jordan and the White Sox of shaming baseball and the arrangement barely lasted a year. “It’s been embarrassing,” Jordan told the New York Times. “For the last nine years, I had the world at my feet. Now I’m just another minor leaguer trying to make it to the major leagues.”
Landonio has said that Maldini’s technique is a little rough around the edges. In a way, however, that adds to the beauty of his passion for tennis. Everything came easily to him for a quarter of a century but he wasn’t afraid to test himself and start again from the bottom. He could have chosen to live off past glories. Instead he is proof that it is never too late to learn a few new tricks.