Justine Henin became the world's No. 1 women's tennis player thanks largely to her cool and clinical attitude on court. She couldn't muster that sang-froid today as she announced her retirement from tennis at the age of just 25. "It's time to breathe again," she said with a cracking voice and watering eyes at a hastily convened press conference outside Brussels. "Most people my age are in school or starting work, and I have the impression I've already lived three lives."
Even three lifetimes would hardly suffice for Henin's record run in professional tennis. She won a total of seven Grand Slam titles, including four of the last five French Opens. 'Juju,' as she's called by her doting Belgian public, also won 41 WTA singles titles and earned more than $19 million in prize money during her eleven-year career. She headed the WTA rankings for the 117th time this week, and had been No. 1 almost solidly since November 2006. She took the women's singles gold medal at the 2004 Olympics and was Belgium's biggest medal hope for the Beijing Olympics this summer.
Her decision came after a banner year. Despite starting 2007 by leaving her husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne after four years of marriage, she won 10 of the 14 events she entered, becoming the first player in women's tour history to win $5 million in a year. She is the reigning champion at the French and U.S. Opens and has won all the Grand Slams except Wimbledon.
But earlier this year, her game appeared to unravel. Despite winning her home tournament in Antwerp in February, Henin failed to go beyond the quarterfinals at any other event. At last week's German Open, she was upset by Dinara Safina in the third round. Although she was injury-free, Henin had pulled out of this week's Italian Open citing fatigue, and the WTA fined her $20,000 for late withdrawal.
By Monday, rumors had spread that she was 're-evaluating' her career. And today, speaking at the Justine Centre named after her in Limelette, just outside the Belgian capital, Henin confirmed that after two decades in the game she'd lost her passion for playing. "It's the end of a wonderful adventure but it's something I have been thinking about for a long time," she said. "I have experienced everything I could have. I have lived completely for tennis. I am relieved and proud of what I achieved."
Henin has good reason to be proud. Born in Liège, in the run-down former industrial heart of Belgium, Henin has struggled with adversity throughout her career, and her life. If she seemed to display an earnest, almost haunted demeanor on court, it perhaps reflected her checkered childhood growing up in the pretty Ardennes village of Marloie. She lost her mother to cancer when she was just 12; her father, José, had to bring up his children on a postman's salary.
When she first emerged on the circuit, Henin was seen as an anomaly, too petite to survive against the Amazonian might of the new power generation, epitomized by the Williams sisters. But though small, Henin worked exceptionally hard on strengthening her body, and her forehand and serve. She also had an extraordinary one-handed backhand that earned her the swooning admiration of legends like John McEnroe. A thoughtful player, she performed best on clay, a slower surface more suited to her guile. What she lacked in height and natural power, she made up for with speed and accuracy.
And she was tough. Eight years ago, she cut her father, her two brothers and her sister out of her life as she single-mindedly pursued her tennis ambitions. In post-match interviews, her icy mood appeared the same whether she won or lost. Her dour demeanor contrasted poorly with that of her fellow Belgian tennis rival Kim Clijsters, whose joie de vivre and conviviality lit up the women's circuit.
Yet although superficially at the top of her game, Henin was struggling to rekindle her drive. "I started thinking about it late last year," she said. "I was at the end of the road."
On Wednesday, Belgians appeared stunned by Henin's decision: for all her reserve, she is a national icon. The move also comes just a year after Clijsters retired, age just 23; she has since married and become a mother.
Henin, who reconciled herself with her family last year, had often talked of life beyond tennis, saying she'd like more time to study, travel and generally escape from the pressures of the game.
At her press conference, she said she planned to have her own family, and to look after children. "I have no regrets or sadness. I leave as world No. 1," she said. "I gave everything for tennis." She's got plenty of time, and plenty of money, to explore everything else.