Queen Justine bids farewell

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - One of tennis' greatest champions abruptly called it a career this week, as Justine Henin decided she'd had enough of the tennis lifestyle at only 25 years of age.

Much like Bjorn Borg in the early 1980s, perhaps the Belgian star was burned out. She certainly battled a bevy of physical problems, not to mention a fair share of mental anguish, during her great run, which included seven Grand Slam singles titles, a Fed Cup championship (2001) and an Olympic gold medal (2004).

Henin was often plagued by fatigue issues, and was slowed mightily a few years back by a strain of cytomegalovirus, an energy-sapping immune system problem that often forced her to sleep up to 18 hours a day and left her with barely enough strength to even brush her teeth.

Henin held a mid-week news conference to announce her stunning retirement from tennis.
But at no point did we think she'd retire before the midway point of this 2008 campaign.

The former JH-H was 16-4 with a pair of titles this year. Not too bad, right? But instead of continuing her assault on the record books, the diminutive star held a mid-week news conference in her homeland to let everybody know that she was leaving the game for good...with no regrets.

In doing so, "Juju" became the first-ever standing women's No. 1 to retire, and the second Belgian great within the last year to hang 'em up, as former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters quit the sport last year in order to start a family (which she has since done).

"The decision is final, I stop immediately with tennis," said Henin, who was flanked by her long-time coach, Argentine Carlos Rodriguez, at the news conference. "I stop without regret. I've given everything."

She added that she is "not sad, but relieved and proud" of her decision.

Henin, who will turn 26 on June 1, suffered a third-round defeat at the hands of Russian Dinara Safina in Berlin last week and then pulled out of this week's event in Rome, citing (what else?) fatigue.

The four-time French Open champion, who took the last three championships at Roland Garros, opted against gearing up for a shot at a fifth overall and fourth straight title at the only clay-court major, which starts in less than two weeks. The reigning queen of clay ends her career with a 21-match winning streak at RG.

Henin captured seven Grand Slam titles, a Fed Cup championship and Olympic gold.
All told, Henin tallied 41 titles on the WTA Tour and more than $19.4 million in prize money. She led the circuit with a whopping 10 titles last year, a year in which she pocketed over $5 million and captured both French and U.S. Open crowns.

The diminutive star first reached No. 1 in October 2003 and this week marked her 61st consecutive one at the top of the rankings, and 117th overall, which is good enough for sixth place on that all-time list.

The 5-foot-5 Henin was best known for that spectacular one-handed backhand, her tremendous athleticism and foot speed, mental strength and an unrivaled work ethic. She was able to combine power and finesse, which enabled her to excel on any surface.

Her outstanding footwork, balance and court coverage were top shelf, and she always demonstrated exceptional volleying skills. Henin also boasted an underrated serve, which topped out at 124 miles per hour back in 2005.

"Pound for pound Justine is the greatest player of her generation," said WTA Tour founder and legend Billie Jean King.

The steady Henin captured every major tennis event, with the exception of Wimbledon; helped tiny Belgium win its first and only Fed Cup title; and was a two-time winner of the prestigious year-end Tour Championships. She played in 11 Grand Slam finals overall, including all four majors in 2006.

"Justine Henin will be remembered as one of the all-time great champions in women's tennis, and a woman who made up for her lack of size with a will to win and fighting spirit that was second to none," said WTA Tour chairman and CEO Larry Scott. "It is rare that an athlete leaves at the very top of her game in this day and age, but Justine has always played by her own rules, in the very best sense of those words. History will remember Justine for not only her seven Grand Slam titles and three years finishing as the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's No.1, but for one of the most graceful backhands the sport has ever seen and an ability to overcome any and all obstacles placed in her way on and off the court."

The four-time French Open champion Henin was the reigning three-time titlist at Roland Garros.
The three-time year-end No. 1 had some great rivalries, with her countrywoman Clijsters, and Serena Williams. She went 12-10 lifetime versus Kimmy, including a win in the first-ever all-Belgian Grand Slam final at the 2003 French Open. Henin also topped Clijsters in the '03 U.S. Open final and the 2004 Aussie Open finale. Against her arch-rival Serena, Henin was 6-7 and won three straight Grand Slam quarterfinal bouts against the sturdy American last season. Oddly enough, Henin and the former top-ranked Serena never squared off in a major final.

FYI, the two-time U.S. Open champion and 2004 Aussie Open titlist Henin was 6-3 lifetime against Maria Sharapova, 2-7 versus Venus Williams and 7-5 against Lindsay Davenport, if you want to compare her against some of her other contemporaries.

Henin, who spent the last eight years inside the world's top eight, was also well known for having a troubled personal life. Her mother died in 1995 when she was only 12 years old, she went eight years without speaking to her estranged father Jose, and she divorced her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, in 2007.

One thing I know for sure is that Henin's retirement is bad news for the world of tennis. Tennis, like all sports, is only as great as its greatest champions and its mouth-watering rivalries. And with Henin's exit, you lose not only the compelling rivalry with Serena, but also one of the game's top players of all- time.

And for the record, I can't think of anyone I enjoyed watching more than the determined Belgian.

Is Henin truly gone for good? My gut feeling says yes. But don't forget that Borg attempted that ill-fated comeback in the early '90s, with his trademark headband and wooden racquet in tow.

Farewell, Queen Justine!!!

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley
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