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Farewell to the little gem of women’s tennis


 

Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:11

For someone sending shockwaves throughout the tennis world, Justine Henin appeared remarkably calm. The announcement of her retirement while ranked world No.1, and just two weeks shy of her 26th birthday has bewildered her fans and fellow professionals.

Everybody wants answers. Is she another burnout casualty? Has the catalogue of injuries and illnesses that have blighted her career finally gotten the better of her? Have the uncharacteristic defeats this season rocked her confidence?

The steady voice at the press conference just outside Brussels betrayed such conventional premature exit routines of the past, but the watering eyes revealed that the decision was still no easier. Sat beside a visibly moved Carlos Rodriguez, her long-time coach and mentor, Henin explained that it was time to breathe again.

This is the end of a child’s dream. I have experienced everything I could have. I have lived completely for tennis, and I am relieved and proud of what I achieved.

Most people my age are in school or starting work, and I have the impression I’ve already lived three lives.

While we can only imagine what two of those other lives might have been although presumably they feature her tragic family saga and the freakish variety of reasons to visit the tours medical team in one, she was a tennis phenomenon. Her 41 tour titles, seven grand slams including four of the past five French Open titles and last years US Open helped her earn more than $19 million in prize money during her 11-year career.

She has headed the WTA rankings for 117 weeks and was one of Belgiums major medal hopes at this years Beijing Olympics, where she was set to defend the gold medal she won in Athens four years ago.

Talk of retirement would have been unthinkable as recently as January. Henin was looking to extend a 32-match unbeaten streak that began following her semi-final defeat at Wimbledon, her one grand slam Achilles heel.

Plaudits flooded in for the tours little gem. She was often viewed as an exception to the Amazonian might of the new power generation lead by the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova. But Henin proved that on-court tenacity, guile, and technique including arguably the most complete one-handed backhand in either the mens or womens game could more than match the increasingly physical approach of her rivals on tour.

In 2007 she was divorced from Pierre-Yves Hardenne, which led to her withdrawal from the Australian Open, and before the French Open she was reunited with her estranged family following the near-death of her brother in a car crash. The emotional turmoil of all of this would send most into hiding.

Yet in spite of all this, Henin’s form was unprecedented. She went on to lift 10 titles from 14 tournaments entered including the French and US Opens, and became the first female player to earn $5 million in prize money in a single season. Her victory at the year-ending Madrid Masters has been hailed as one of the greatest tournament wins of her career.

But 2008 has seen that form evaporate. Apart from winning her home tournament in Antwerp, she had not progressed beyond the quarter-finals elsewhere. Her late withdrawal from the Italian Open led to a $20,000 fine from the WTA, and sparked rumours that the reigning world No.1, famously feted by John McEnroe as the female Federer, was re-evaluating her career.

This isnt an exasperated, frustrated player who needs a break, Larry Scott, head of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, said. This is a life decision. I dont think theres any chance shell come back.

I suspect that the reason she is retiring ultimately is that the last year was such a transforming life experience for her personally.

Rather than falling victim to the distractions of the dramas of her personal life, tennis provided Henin with an arena of calm a place where she could dictate the course of events. While the high pressure of the tours is often cited as a reason for psychological breakdown, Henin treated it as rehab. But now, Rodriguez believes she no longer needs tennis in the way she once did.

She used tennis as an outlet for her emotions and finally with her life now reconciled, she no longer has the fire that drove her to success,” he said.

“She has come full circle. She started and finished her career surrounded by those she loved, especially her family. It’s the perfect end.”

Her on-court persona has now fallen in line with her off-court life. I have no regrets or sadness. I leave as world No.1,” she said. “I gave everything for tennis.

Deservedly, and with stunned best wishes from the world over, Justine Henins retirement will be played out on her terms.

By Michael Beattie

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