Without fanfare at a press conference in Limelette, Belgium, uttering the simple phrase “ I am here to announce that I am putting a permanent end to my tennis career”; Justine Henin, the number one female tennis player in the world, declared that she was retiring effective immediately.
A stoic Henin with a tearful Carlos Rodriguez, her long time coach at her side, assured those present that although it may come as a ‘shock and surprise’, it was a decision taken after months of reflection and soul searching. Furthermore, Henin emphasized that this determination was in no way dictated by her recent defeat in the third round in Berlin to Dinara Safina. But, Henin acknowledged that the debacle last week only served to reinforce that retirement is indeed the next logical step. Henin cited that since the epic battle in the finals at 2007 WTA Championships in Madrid against Maria Sharapova, where she came from behind to win in three sets in one of the best matches ever played, that her spirit has been irrevocably shattered and she felt as if at that event, she had played out the final act of her career.
Justine commented that she has reached the stage where she has lost the ‘fire and passion’ to play. Thus, Henin proclaimed ‘it was time to turn the page’ and express her immense gratitude to a sport which allowed her to live out her childhood dream. Henin stated that she has gone through a gamut of feelings as a competitor and treasures them all; that certain images and emotions will leave an indelible mark in her heart and mind. In stepping aside Henin asserted: “I do not feel sadness but rather [a sense of] relief and freedom . . . I have no regrets . . . I go out with my head held high”.
Henin recognized that perhaps people might judge this decision as premature ,considering she is only 25. But, she reflected that ‘there are no rules’ nor is it easy to arrive at such a conclusion. For as long as she can recall Justine said, tennis has been her singular focus, now it was time to pursue other dreams, explore fresh avenues. Other tasks call for her attention such as her charitable foundation , which helps sick children, and her sport academies.
Lastly, Henin expressed her gratitude to Rodriguez and his family for their support, dedication and sacrifices over the past twelve years. Finally, she cited Carlos’ kids will have their father back which will bring them great joy. Henin stressed that what she loved most was the fact that her success was a team effort; impossible without the direction of her coach who has been more than just a teacher, sticking with her through many rocky periods in her life including her estrangement from her family as an adolescent. To underline the pivotal role Rodriguez played, Henin declared that if at any point or for whatever reason Carlos had opted to terminate their professional relationship, it would have meant the end of her career because she could not envision triumphing without his guidance. Rodriguez affirmed that the privilege had been his to work with such a talent, for only thanks to Henin he has carved his own mark on the tennis world. Then jokingly said, now that he was laid off, it was time to pound the pavement once again.
Rumors had been circulating for days that Henin was on the verge of making a monumental statement. Despite her on court struggles and her knee problem of late, retirement was definitely unforeseen. Her colleagues greeted the news with astonishment; as Roger Federer explained: “it’s a real pity. A female player who can play well on all surfaces, that’s quite rare on the women’s tour these days”. Amelie Mauresmo stated: “I never thought she would stop before me . . . It will be strange not having her on tour. She undoubtedly marked my career . . .I won my two slams playing against her”. While Venus Williams summed it up best: “what can you say? I don’t think there’s enough time to say all there is to say about such a champion. She was a formidable adversary, she threw herself into each match to play her best tennis regardless of the situation. A true warrior.”
Henin’s pronouncement comes just two weeks before Roland Garros, the major where she has had the most success and is the defending champion. Henin closes her career with forty-one titles, including seven majors and an Olympic Gold Metal with Wimbledon the only major trophy missing from her illustrious career. No doubt, a large vacuum has been left in the women’s game which will be hard to fill.