Paolo Maldini courts new love to join grand band of sport switchers | Jacob Steinberg

Paolo Maldini, the legendary Milan and Italy captain, will make his professional tennis debut this week after stepping away from football to pursue an unexpected ambition

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? Hes 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 Milans manager. But tennis? At the age of 49?

After all, someone of Maldinis standing would not have had to wait long for the offers to start rolling in if he had decided to follow in his fathers footsteps by becoming a manager. Yet he has never sounded like a man driven by a desire to enter the cutthroat world of coaching.

Maldinis 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.

Paolos gifted with a good serve in addition to some decent shots, Stefano Landonio, his doubles partner, told Il Tennis Italiano. Hes 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.

Paolo Maldini with his doubles partner Stefano Landonio. The pair have qualified for the Milan Open. Photograph: Instagram

Lets not get carried away. Maldini isnt 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 Italians game, at an ATP Challenger event in Milan this week.

But despite the intrigue, perhaps Maldinis 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 superlightweight 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 fathers 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 Britains 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 doesnt 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 isnt 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.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jun/25/paolo-maldini-tennis-sport-switchers-milan-italy

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