Dogged Henin received few handouts during emotional career

Justine Henin's abrupt retirement Wednesday two weeks before her 26th birthday might have been shocking, but it was also consistent with the theme of her extraordinary career. She defied every convention in the modern game.

She was a short, slight sapling among redwoods, parlaying craft and versatility into an effective response to the power players of her era. She smoldered from within rather than verbalizing with grunts or groans or screams, except for that diminutive "Allez!'' ("Go!") that seemed to escape her almost involuntarily, accompanied by a quick fist-pump.

Her appearance was as plain as her game was nuanced. Henin was the anti-celebrity, shunning glamour and marketing mojo in favor of unadorned outfits, a workhorse's ponytail, a tomboy's ballcap and an ever-present wristwatch, as if time were of the essence even in a sport with no game clock.

Most top womens players spend their early years as professionals in a parental cocoon. Henin lost her mother at age 12, became estranged from her father as a teenager and flouted another tennis tradition by staying with the same coach for 11 years.

Her relationship with Carlos Rodriguez was close -- she habitually glanced up at him between points and read notes from him during changeovers -- yet never appeared controlling. They wore simple, almost identical black-and-white adidas shirts to her news conference Wednesday at the tennis club they jointly own and manage in the small town of Limelette, Belgium, where it was Rodriguez who broke down and Henin who comforted him.

Another thread wound through Henin's years at the top. Unassuming as she was, she also seemed trailed by high drama. It's fitting that her last major title, at the 2007 WTA year-end championships in Madrid, was a 3-hour, 24-minute-long war of attrition against Maria Sharapova that left both women completely limp.

The only free points Henin ever got were from a fluid, one-handed backhand that should be cast in bronze now, if anyone could presume to capture that motion in a stationary object. The stroke looked as if it were generated by a woman with an eagle's wingspan instead of a sparrow's.

"She had to think her way through a point -- she was a combination player,'' said ESPN analyst and former pro Mary Carillo. "There aren't many left. Most players have a couple of big cannons and they use them. She had a lot of options. She had a very big tennis vocabulary in a small body. She knew how to open up a court and how to attack it.

"People are going to say she's only 25, but when you're 25 and you've been playing small ball all your life, that's a lot. We're talking about dog years when we talk about what she needed to do and needed to feel to play well.''

Henin was deeply enjoyable to watch, especially for the all-court purist, but somewhat confounding to follow, exhausting us nearly as much as she drained herself to get what she got out of that small frame. She was brilliant at deciphering spatial relationships on the court and insistent on maintaining her personal space off of it. She led us on a bumpy, emotional journey even as she kept us at arms' length.

Seldom has a champion projected such strength and such fragility, such consistency and such unpredictability, at the same time. Henin finished inside the top 10 every season since 2001 and won at least one Grand Slam every year since 2003 but struggled periodically and openly with two things great athletes can't do without: breath and confidence.

She married young and divorced young. She occasionally took medical timeouts at inopportune times and bowed out of a few big matches -- most infamously, the 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo -- exasperating, and at some junctures alienating, peers and fans.

Henin suffered by comparison to her perky, outgoing countrywoman and contemporary Kim Clijsters. Their rapport was perhaps inevitably chilly, but warmed up around the time Clijsters decided to leave tennis for personal reasons.

Just about a year ago, Henin sprang her biggest surprise of all. After years of refusing to discuss her family life, she suddenly revealed a reconciliation with her father and brothers on the eve of the French Open and invited them to Paris to watch her play.

She thanked her family, movingly and publicly, from center court after the final in which she eviscerated Ana Ivanovic, then left it to her siblings to tell the story afterward. A car crash that nearly took the life of one of Henin's brothers propelled her to his hospital bedside, and doors long rusted shut began to swing open. She and her family members resolutely declined to blame each other for the years of silence.

Henin smiled more easily that spring and her public tone softened noticeably. Whatever private burdens had attached to her game lifted, and she played the rest of the season with a kind of zoned-in abandon, losing only one match, albeit a heartbreaking Wimbledon semifinal, between May and November.

The sensational season punctuated by family drama was more evidence that nothing ever came easily to this dogged athlete. Henin, who possessed one of the most inventive games in tennis, also re-invented herself personally several times under the unforgiving microscope of fame. All that creativity probably took a toll.

A slew of women tennis players recently have retired but refused to use the word. Henin would never be comfortable with that kind of limbo. Her announcement was a stop volley -- precise, decisive, point-ending. Never before has a women's No. 1 walked off the court. It figures that this stubborn, mold-breaking, self-made dynamo would be the first.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.