Justine Henin has spent a professional lifetime contradicting those who believe that only muscle and power can win the day in modern tennis. Yesterday the world No 1 sprang her biggest and final surprise when she announced her retirement. "This is a definitive decision," the 25-year-old Belgian said. "Those who know me know it is serious."
Although Henin had made a comparatively poor start to the year, her decision is a huge shock and a major blow to a sport which has now lost three of its biggest names since the start of last year following the retirements of Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis.
Ever since Henin took more than a year to recover from a virus that laid her low in 2004, health issues have been a concern. She has cut down on her schedule in recent years but only last week was complaining of fatigue after what proved to be her final match, a defeat to Dinara Safina in Berlin.
"At the end of that match [retirement] all of a sudden was there as something evident," she said at a news conference in Belgium yesterday. "I decided to stop fooling myself and accept it."
In an age dominated by strength rather than finesse, Henin has been an unlikely champion. At 5ft 5in and nine stone, she is tiny in comparison with many of her rivals. However, giving so much away physically has meant that she has had to train harder, which put its own strains on her body. Nevertheless, she could also hit the ball with remarkable power and John McEnroe once described her one-handed backhand as the best shot in tennis. She was outstanding on clay but had the game to win on all surfaces.
Henin had dominated the women's game for the last two years, but the first signs that all was not well came in January at the Australian Open, when she won only four games in losing to Maria Sharapova in the quarter-finals. An even heavier defeat followed in Miami, where she won just two games against Serena Williams.
"I thought long about this," Henin said. "I started thinking about it late last year. I was at the end of the road. I leave with my head held high."
Henin won four French Opens, two US Opens, one Australian Open and Olympic gold. Wimbledon was the only jewel missing from her crown, though she twice reached the final. The Belgian's domination was never as great as in the last seven months of last year. She won the French Open without dropping a set and after losing to Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon semi-finals in one of the shocks of the year went on an extraordinary unbeaten run. She won her last 25 matches, claiming the US Open and season-ending Sony Ericsson WTA Championships along the way.
Her retirement comes at a time when she has found more peace in her private life than for many a year. After the breakdown two winters ago of her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne, she started to rebuild her relationship with her father and other male relatives, having had no contact with them for several years. It was fitting that her last title, in February, was won in Antwerp in front of a home crowd and, for the first time since the break with her family, in front of her father.
The Henin statistics
Turned Pro: 1999
11 Grand Slam finals, 7 Victories, 4 Defeats
French Open Champion: 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007
US Open Champion: 2003, 2007. Runner-up 2006
Australian Open Champion: 2004. Runner-up 2006
Wimbledon: Runner-up 2001, 2006
Nearly $20m (£10.3m) earnings in WTA career.
Spent 116 weeks in total as World No 1 – her current ranking.