In modern sport athletes must specialise in one field in order to reach the upper echelons where they can take on and beat the best. In the early 20th century, professional athletes were not the multi-million dollar, sponsorship laden roles surrounded by experts and the media in the way that they are now; athletes could compete in multi sports at a time, even succeeding at both.
An example of this is Sir John Surtees, who competed in and won a world championship in Formula One and several in Super Bikes, the only person to ever do this. MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi attempted this in the mid-2000s, but was unable to get a race seat in Formula One, due to the commitment and focus required to be successful at a sport in the 21st century.
Some sports stars do still make the switch though. This can be after they have retired from their main career and they just do it for fun, others decide they want to have professional success in multiple fields. Here are some tennis players who have made the switch.
Gus Hansen was a tennis champion when he was younger, but did not manage to take his career to the heights of some of the greats like Roger Federer, Andy Murray or Boris Becker. He instead switched his attention to playing poker, with a fondness for playing high stakes games with an approach to playing that is often unpredictable. This has brought him a number of successes including three World Poker Tour titles and the World Series of Poker bracelet.
In more recent years though, Hansen’s career that has been overshadowed by a number of defeats, including one to Japanese poker player, Masa Kagawa, in a competition run by the PokerStars Blog that let fans vote for their favourite players via Twitter. The poll pitted famous professional poker players against each other in a tournament style format.
Ashleigh Barty is a professional tennis player from Australia who has also had a career in cricket. Currently ranked world number 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Barty had been ranked number 1 until August 2019. She has won six WTA singles titles and a further 10 titles playing in doubles tournaments since turning pro in 2010.
Despite this success, Barty decided to take a break from tennis in 2014 to “experience life as a normal person”. During this time she showed an interest in playing cricket, and met with the Australian women’s national team to discuss what it is like to be a professional athlete. Following this, she began training with the Queensland Fire cricket team and played in the Brisbane’s Women’s Premier Cricket Twenty20 league for the Western Suburbs District Cricket Club shortly afterwards. Her team won the league that year, with Barty being their top scorer in the grand final. After competing for the Queensland Fire for a season, she returned to professional tennis in 2016.
At the height of his career, Jarkko Nieminen reached number 13 in the world rankings, the highest ever for a Finnish player. He won two ATP singles titles, and five titles in doubles tournaments. He did not win a Grand Slam though, with the highest he reached being the quarterfinals in the 2005 US Open, at Wimbledon in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. He retired from professional tennis at the end of 2015, making the Stockholm Open of that year his final event.
The following year, Nieminen announced that he would be competing in the Finnish Salibandyliiga (Finland’s top floorball league) for the 2016-17 season, playing for SC Classic. Although his new career was announced with much fanfare, little has been reported since, making it likely Nieminen’s floorball career was not as successful as time playing professional tennis.
Whilst it is possible for professional athletes to switch from playing one sport to another, the tough level of competition found in most modern sports requires a level of dedication that is not possible when spreading focus over two sports. In decades gone by, when the same level of professionalism did not exist, it was possible to have success in multiple spheres. However, as proven by all of the examples above, success in one sport usually leads to mediocre results elsewhere.