Some 15 years ago last week, French player Tatiana Golovin was on the stadium at the 2004 US Open, playing a third-round match against Serena Williams.
She was just 16 years old.
Already, she had reached the second week of the Australian Open that January just as she was celebrating that birthday – ranked No. 354 and in on a wild card.
She was named WTA Tour newcomer of the year in 2004, following in the footsteps of Maria Sharapova, who had won the award in 2003.
But less than four years later, in May 2008, Golovin played her last match at the WTA event in Berlin, Germany.
She tried to compete in the Olympic doubles later that summer in Beijing with Pauline Parmentier. But she couldn’t make the date.
Golovin was just 20.
Form of arthritis forces Golovin out
The Frenchwoman had to stop because of a disease called ankylosing sponylytis.
It’s a form of arthritis that causes inflammation of the vertebrae that “can lead to severe, chronic pain and discomfort” in the spine and in other areas of the body.
But on Friday, the day after 36-year-old Kim Clijsters announced she would return to the WTA Tour in 2020, Golovin – still just 31 – made an announcement of her own on BeIn Sports, the network for which she serves as a tennis analyst.
“The idea has been brewing for a year and, since the summer, I’ve been at it very seriously. Beyond the tennis, I started serious physical training a month ago. The goal was to be ready at the beginning of next year, but things are going quickly and today, I’m thinking of perhaps starting again in mid-October,” Golovin said.
Early retirement, and what might have been
Golovin said that she stopped because her body could no longer respond to the demands of high-level sport because of the disease.
She had closed the door on her tennis career a long ago.
But, she said, she’s been asked on several occasions over the last 18 months to speak about the disease.
And after meeting various doctors during those speaking engagements, she learned that there were treatments that might allow her to return.
“In hindsight, I’ve realized over the last few years that the place I best expressed myself was as an athlete,” she said. “I’ll see if I can get there again. I just have to find a way to manage the pain, because it’s still there.”
She’s at the French national training centre in Paris, training every day, testing racquets, all with the support of the French Tennis Federation, she added.
Career high of No. 12
Born in Moscow, Golovin moved to France when she was just eight months old.
She was a precocious junior, playing ITF events by age 13 and making the 2001 US Open junior girls’ draw on her ranking, still aged 13. By 14, she was already playing pro events.
She reached No. 22 in the junior rankings, beating players like Kateryna Bondarenko, Jarmila Gajdosova, Casey Dellacqua, Anna Chakvetadze and Nicole Vaidisova before the wrapped up her junior career at age 15 at the 2003 US Open.
Six months later, just 16 and already ranked No. 94 and into the Miami Open on a wild card, she defeated Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina to reach the round of 16 there.
That spring, she and Richard Gasquet (who was about to turn 18) won the French Open mixed doubles title.
It was hardly a cakewalk draw. Look at the teams they defeated.
She reached the second week of Wimbledon, losing to Serena Williams in the round of 16.
By late summer, already ranked in the top 30, she was playing Williams again in the third round of the women’s draw in New York. With the exception of Serena, she had beaten most of the best players of her era.
She reached her career high of No. 12 in February 2008. Six months later, she was out of the game. And shortly after, she was already doing television and missing the competition.
All of which to say – she was really good.
She also played a TON of tennis, at a very young age. Whether or not that contributed to her physical issues, who knows. But the fact that she (and others) ended up out of the game at a young age is just one of the reasons behind the WTA’s age-eligibility rules.
Lots of off-court attention
Golovin was a product of the Nick Bollettieri academy, spending six years there.
She was coached by various big names, including Mats Wilander and Brad Gilbert.
In the post-Anna Kournikova era (Kournikova is 6 1/2 years her senior), Golovin got a lot of attention because of how she looked – attention she seemed to enjoy.
All the way back in 2004, she said this: “I love it that people are talking about me, and that I’m being compared to Anna Kournikova. It’s a compliment. I know her well; our mothers are friends.”
She made the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, along with Daniela Hantuchova and Maria Kirilenko, part of a feature unfortunately named “Volley of the Dolls”.
Off court, she had a long romance with French soccer star Samir Nasri, even moving to the U.K. to be with him when he played for Arsenal and then Manchester City.
Nasri was rarely out of the tabloids for various reasons, and so it was a fairly high-profile romance.
Then, she met Stade Français rugby star Hugo Bonneval in 2013. Their daughter Anastasia turned four on July 10, and their son turns two in November.
Life seems very full. But as is the case with Clijsters, there may just not be a true substitute for that competitive feeling.
Especially when you’re forced to stop at such a young age.
Maybe it’ll happen for her. Maybe, despite all the advances, the disease still won’t allow her to train and play at the top level. But at least she’ll know.
We look forward to seeing what she can do.
But if she does return, she probably won’t be allowed to promote a betting site.
Golovin doesn’t appear anywhere on the ITF’s retired lists. So presumably, she can return whenever she’s ready without having to go through the waiting period.