Wednesday, May 14, 2008


FIRST Annika Sorenstam. Then Justine Henin. But if Sorenstam’s decision to quit professional golf sent a ripple running through the world of sport, Henin’s retirement created a wave of tsunami proportions.

Just 25 years of age, Henin appeared to be in the prime of her life: No. 1 in the WTA Rankings for the last 117 weeks and coming off the most successful season of her career.

She won 63 out of 67 matches in 2007, captured the French Open for the third year running (fourth in all) and then triumphed at the US Open in September.

Reconciled with her family after years apart, Henin seemed set to dominate ladies’ tennis for years to come.

Now, less than two weeks before the start of her favorite tournament on the red clay of Roland Garros, she is walking away from the sport, vowing never to return.

So what are the reasons behind her decision and what is her tennis legacy?

At 5ft 5ins tall – or small, depending on how you look at it – Henin was at a considerable disadvantage against many of her more muscular opponents, particularly the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.

"For her size, the greatest athlete we've ever seen"

But what Henin lacked in power, she more than made up for in mental strength. Billie Jean King once described the pocket dynamo as “for her size, the greatest athlete we’ve ever seen.”

Renowned for her one-handed backhand, fleet footedness and precise play, Henin had to work hard to stay at the top.

Her frail physique and weak immune system meant it was a constant battle to stay fit. She withdrew from this week’s Rome Open and her reduced schedule this season suggested the demands were catching up on her.

An intensely private person, Henin kept herself to herself on tour. She suffered in comparison to the vivacious, more open personality of Kim Clijsters, her fellow Belgian.

But whereas Clijsters has won only one Grand Slam tournament, Henin won seven – four French, two US and one Australian.

That dedication has come in spite of her problems off the court; her divorce from Pierre-Yves Hardenne and her long estrangement from her father, two brothers and sister following the death of her mother, Francoise, when she was 12.

It was Francoise who had taken Justine to Paris to see Steffi Graf grace the court at the French Open. She had told her mother: “One day I will play here and I will win.” Not once, but four times. 

Sadly, it seems Henin will not get another chance to complete the Career Grand Slam. Beaten twice in the final at Wimbledon, her failure to win on grass means she will probably not be ranked alongside the all-time greats such as King, Graf, Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

However, she will be remembered as the little girl from Belgium who could slug it out from the baseline with the giants of ladies’ tennis.

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