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All goals achieved
Linda Pearce – The Age

ON SUNDAY morning, after many celebratory drinks, two hours’ sleep and the mandatory fried breakfast at the team hotel in Auckland, Liz Ellis told her fellow world champions that she had played her last game. Most of them cried. Almost three months earlier, when Ellis confided her secret plans to her great friend Catherine Cox over lunch at a restaurant in Sydney’s Rose Bay, Cox admitted to a different emotion: anger.”

I said, ‘No, you’re not’ and Liz said, ‘Yes, I am’ and I said, ‘No, you’re not’, and we went on like that for about five minutes and then she told me that she’d discussed it in detail with Matthew, her husband, so then I rang her husband and abused him for not trying hard enough,” Cox recalled yesterday. “And I probably would have sat there for the rest of the day and tried to make her change her mind, but nothing was going to happen. At that stage, she said she may even think about having children and that was what made me cry because I thought, ‘God, she’s serious’!”

So she was, but Ellis also had made a pact with national coach Norma Plummer some time earlier that she would not announce any decision to quit until the world titles were over – unlike four years ago in Jamaica, when captain Kathryn Harby-Williams was one of three players who flagged their retirement intentions ahead of what also was to be coach Jill McIntosh’s swansong.

And, for Ellis, if that meant telling a few fibs to the media, and others, then so be it. In Melbourne for the launch of the Tasman Trophy in October, she suggested she was keen to play on. On Saturday night, she said she had given no thought to anything past 9.30pm on November 17. By then, her priority was to share with her teammates what only Cox already knew.”

I didn’t want to even hint that I was thinking about it because to win a world champs, you have to have such tunnel vision and be so focused,” Ellis said yesterday. “I’d felt bad telling Catherine but I couldn’t have kept it from her, and she kept the secret very well – even though that day was not a pleasant day.”

She left all these dreadful messages on my husband’s voicemail – the first one was, ‘What are you doing? Why don’t you talk her out of it?’- and I was just hoping she could put it out of her head. And telling the girls on the Sunday morning was pretty difficult. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll put it off. I’ll tell ’em now. No, I’ll tell ’em later’.”

She told them – and then promptly burst into tears – the delicate morning after the long night that had just brought her proudest achievement, and one of what history will judge as perhaps her finest, toughest and most desperate performance against New Zealand star Irene van Dyk.

Ellis’ third world championship added to her two Commonwealth Games gold medals, four national league Most Valuable Player awards, and four premierships as captain of the Sydney Swifts, among countless other honours. She is the most capped Australian in national league (173 matches) and Test (122) history.

Yet she has felt for much of the year that now was the time to go. Despite being in the best shape of her life, and habitually outplaying much younger and taller opponents with her spring, toughness and intelligence, her body is creaking. Amid all the tall young shooters coming through, she jokes that she is shrinking annually. And the next major event is not until 2010.

Despite the temptation to stay on for the start of the trans-Tasman league in 2008, the fact that this year the Swifts ended the national league era by winning consecutive titles completed the first leg of Ellis’s desired double. Only the burning ambition to reclaim the world championship remained unfulfilled.”

After the Swifts won, I thought, ‘That’ll do me’. I was 99.9% sure, then on Saturday night at the end of the game, it was just easy to say, ‘That’s enough’. On the one hand, it’s been really difficult – it’s hard to walk away from such a great team at the height of its powers – but I’m 34, things are starting to fall apart.”

When I get up in the morning, I have to hobble around and it takes me a while to get going, so there just comes a time where you know it’s time to finish. I wanted a fairytale, and I got it, so that was good enough for me.”

Ellis admits she briefly considered retirement in the moments after rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament in Auckland late in 2005, an injury that, at 32, cost her a place at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. “It was tempting, but I really wanted to leave the sport on my own terms, and I wanted to leave the sport that I love playing, by playing.”

“The highs for me that standout are obviously the three world championship wins – ’95, ’99 and this one – and I’ve said that ’99 for me was the best, but Saturday night, I think just shades that, knowing that it was my last. There is nothing I would do differently. I’d even have the knee injury because that really renewed my passion and my fight for the sport.”

As the public face of netball, too, Ellis has been exceptional. A qualified solicitor and experienced television personality, she is articulate, witty and accessible. “Full credit to Liz, she built her own profile,” Plummer said. “Being captain of the Australian team has assisted her with that, but every time she gets up to speak, she just blows the opposition away.”

“And on the court, it’s never say- die. Even if she’s getting beaten, my God, you know she’s going to try and turn it around, and that’s a great quality. A lot of players go missing; if somebody’s got the wood on them, they sort of fade away, but Liz never has. She’s one of the most dogged competitors I’ve ever coached.”

Even Cox did not fully realise the extent of Ellis’ brilliant finale against the Silver Ferns until the team gathered to watch a replay on Sunday night. “Full credit to her, she had so much weight on her shoulders knowing that she was going to retire, and then she still gets up and gets the intercept to win the game,” Cox said. “She leads by example, and she’s just the most phenomenal player that’s ever been.”

She also, probably, could be the best coach, or the best commentator, but plans to take at least 12 months to travel, reduce her golf handicap from an “embarrassing” 36, and spend time with her husband. Ellis will keep working for her gaggle of sponsors and continue with her coaching clinics, board memberships and public speaking engagements, while launching a charitable foundation. In that regard, she is more Pat Rafter than Shane Warne.

In purely netball terms, less of Ellis will be heard. She insists she is too close to her former club and national teammates, and way too biased, to yet contemplate a career behind the microphone. She has told Cox a special-comments career is not on her radar at any stage, and Cox is confident that much broader horizons beckon, anyway.

“Liz is so much better than just the netball commentary; I think she’ll go on to bigger and better things,” said Cox, ever the loyal sidekick. “Oh God, she’ll be running the country before we know it. No question.”

LIZ ELLIS – A GREAT NETBALL CAREER

– Australian netball team 1993-2007.
– Australian captain since February 2004 (vice-captain 2000- 2003).
– Most capped Australian player of all time (122 Test matches).
– Represented Australia at four world netball championships (won 1995, 1999 and 2007) and two Commonwealth Games (won 1998 and 2002).
– Captain of the Sydney Swifts since 2000 (vice-captain 1997-1999). Won national title in 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2007.
– Commonwealth Bank Trophy Most Valued Player award in 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2006.
– On boards of State Sports Centre Trust (1998- ), NSW Institute of Sport (2001-), Australian Sports Drug Agency (2001-2004), Institute of Sport Management (2000- 2001), Greater West Sports Foundation (1999- 2000), NSW Ministerial Women in Sport & Recreation Task Force Member (1996- 2000).