THE INIMITABLE Bud Collins once christened Justine Henin the Little Backhand That Could. As nicknames go, it was perfect. Standing 5'5", Henin often spotted opponents six or eight inches in height. But zinging a gorgeous backhand, deploying a diversified portfolio of shots and, most important, possessing unmatched reserves of determination, the Belgian came to rule women's tennis. In this decade, no player has won more major titles than Henin; no player has held the top ranking longer. But, suddenly, the Little Backhand That Could, couldn't.
In a move that was both shocking and unsurprising, Henin announced on May 14 that she was immediately retiring from tennis. This took the notion of going out on top to an extreme. Henin decided to leave tennis at age 25, comfortably ensconced as the WTA's No. 1--ranked player—she'd held the spot for 117 weeks—and two weeks away from gunning for a fourth straight French Open title. She is the defending U.S. Open and Olympic champ as well.
Yet anyone who watched Henin this year could see that something had gone out of her. She was not only losing but losing with an absence of fight. After getting pasted by Serena Williams last month, Henin admitted that she lacked courage in the match. "I really fought these last few months to try for a miracle and to get back this desire and flame," she said last week. "But I realized I was at the end of my road."
Henin's retirement underscores an irony the WTA now faces. The women's game has elevated itself to an excruciating sport being played by truly elite athletes. But a by-product is that the level of play exacts a hell of a price on the competitors. So much so that when the top-ranked player feels she can't commit fully, she figures she may as well quit. For most players there is no longer such a thing as cruise control. The Pollyannas are already predicting that Henin will follow the path of Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport and unretire before long. But the more telling comment came from new No. 1 Maria Sharapova. Told of Henin's retirement, Sharapova, 21, empathized: "If I'm 25 and I'd won [seven] Grand Slams, I'd call it quits too."