With the French Open looming in just over a week, world No. 1 and reigning three-time French Open champion Justine Henin dropped an atom bomb on the sport: At only 25 years old, she announced her retirement from tennis, effective immediately.
No farewell tour, no last stop at the beloved French Open that accounted for four of her seven Grand Slam titles. No return to the very place that always gave her goose bumps since her mother took her there as a youngster and solidified her dream to become a world-class player.
No, Henin was spent, emotionally drained by tennis. She sounded content to make one last piece of history Wednesday in becoming the first top-ranked player in the women's game to call it quits.
Henin became just another statistic in what seems to happen all too often in tennis -- a former teen sensation taking a final bow at too young an age. Whether the decision stems from a lack of desire, which Henin referred to during her retirement press conference as "the flame" ebbing, or from injury, or a bit of both, many just don't seem to have the staying power displayed by the likes of Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Jimmy Connors.
Many of the greats who walked away while seemingly still in their primes were of the brash baseline bashing variety: Bjorn Borg, Andrea Jaeger, Jennifer Capriati, Aaron Krickstein, Kim Clijsters, Tracy Austin and, of course, Henin, to name a few. Their brand of tennis requires extensive physical exertion as well as a strong mental fortitude to grind each and every time they step on a court. It appears that recipe can add up to early retirement.
"I was surprised," Mary Carillo, former player and ESPN commentator, said from her Naples, Fla., home after Henin's stunning announcement. "I think with Justine it was more emotional than physical. It takes a lot to be her, to be so committed, so focused.
"People look at Justine and think she's only 25. But 25 in tennis years, that's like dog years."
Interestingly, few around the game were caught off guard by the retirement last year of Henin's fellow Belgian and former world No. 1, Kim Clijsters, at 24. While Clijsters enjoyed the competitive aspect of tennis, she indicated from early on that what she truly was interested in was marriage and motherhood, so much so that she became engaged to Australian star Lleyton Hewitt while still in her teens. Not long after that relationship ended, Clijsters took up with American basketball player Brian Lynch, who played in the Belgium league; they married last July and the 2005 U.S. Open champion gave birth to a daughter, Jada, in February.
Certainly, prior to Henin's retirement announcement, the two biggest burnout sagas in tennis belonged to Bjorn Borg and Jennifer Capriati.
Borg, the stoic Swede with flowing blond hair kept under wraps by a headband, made girls swoon. But that was nothing compared to what he did to opponents. He won 11 Grand Slam titles, including five straight Wimbledon trophies, reeled in 61 total titles and was the anointed king of the courts. But the single-minded effort that success required eventually became too much, a point punctuated for Borg when he lost a heartbreaking match to heir apparent John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open final. Borg would play only two more matches, at Monte Carlo the following spring, but would wait to announce his retirement until February 1983.
"I was hoping this feeling I had inside would change in January, that I would say, 'OK, I enjoy this again,'" Borg said to the New York Times upon his retirement. "When you go out on the court, you should say this is great, I'm going to hit the tennis ball, I'm going to try to win every point, and I like to make a good shot. If you don't think and feel that, it's very difficult to play."
For Carillo, Henin's departure is very reminiscent of Borg's demise, especially because they were both at the top of their games.
Carillo, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York City with McEnroe, knows her friend was broadsided by Borg's hasty exit.
"Henin reminds me of how it went with Borg leaving because they both were at the very top of the game," Carillo said. "I know McEnroe was surprised, He was like, 'Hey, where are you going, things are just getting good?'"
As for Capriati, hers was the fairy-tale story that turned nightmare not once, but twice.
From the time she was 6, people around the sport heard about a great child star on the horizon. In March 1990, only a few weeks shy of her 14th birthday, Capriati made her pro debut at the Virginia Slims of Florida. Unaware of how the pro tour works, the precocious Capriati came on court throughout the week with a thermos in hand, not expecting drinking water to be provided. The young Floridian immediately made good on her advanced reputation by reaching the final, where she lost to Gabriela Sabatini.
At first, playing on the tour was fun for Capriati. Cute as a button, she was fawned over and spoiled by being delivered whatever her heart desired. But after a while, the pressure of being the family breadwinner and all the responsibilities beyond the court were too much for a child to handle and she rebelled. There was an arrest for marijuana possession and a general distaste for her life, and other than picking up the 1992 Olympic medal, her success did not equal her talents.
Dismayed, Capriati walked away from tennis at the end of 1993 and returned in February of 1996 better able to handle the rigors of tour life as a 20 year old. Now, success finally came in Grand Slam glory: the Australian Open titles in 2001 and 2002, and the French Open in 2001. But in the fall of 2004 a shoulder injury sent Capriati from the court to the surgeon's scalpel and despite her strong desire to return to the game, the injury has never healed properly.
Tracy Austin, who became the youngest world No. 1 at the time in 1980, won her first title at 14 at an Avon Futures event. Two years later she won her first significant title at Rome and won the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1981. But a serious back injury took her out of the game for four years at age 22 starting in 1984. A broken leg in a car accident in 1989 took her away again and, while she briefly returned in February 1993, she permanently retired in July 1994.
Teen phenom Andrea Jaeger was one of the first child prodigies of the Open era to exit the game early.
Turning pro at 14, Jaeger had in tow what has too often become the typical tennis father. Roland Jaeger guided his young daughter to an adult life in which she reached the No. 2 ranking after two years on the women's tour. But after 11 titles, Jaeger's career came to an abrupt halt at 19 when she sustained a right shoulder injury at the 1985 French Open. Two years later after a number of failed surgeries, the former French Open and Wimbledon finalist retired.
While injury might have been the official cause to her tennis career's being cut short, the truth is that the tour never really seemed to be Jaeger's dream as much as it was her father's. She found it to be an uneasy emotional ride. Walking away was not difficult as Jaeger believed her real calling was to help others, which she did in opening a summer camp in Colorado for children with cancer. And in 2006, Jaeger truly followed her heart when she became Sister Andrea, an Anglican Dominican nun.
"When people ask if I miss tennis my answer has always been, 'No regrets,'" Jaeger told People magazine in 2006. "God wanted me to do something else, and it happened to be helping children with cancer. I love what I do."
Another American who arrived early only to check out early was Aaron Krickstein. He joined the tour at 16, won nine of 19 finals he played in, and reached a career-high ranking of No. 6. But he grew fatigued with the demands required to be effective on the tour. After losing in the first round of the 1996 Miami tournament, followed by a first-round loss a few weeks later to Alex O'Brien at a Challenger event in Michigan, Krickstein thought he would take a sabbatical.
In the end, he never officially announced his retirement, but after a slight injury when training a few years later in thoughts of returning to the game, Krickstein knew that his days on the ATP Tour had ended.
"That last tournament I played, just getting ready to make that trip, I wanted to be doing anything else," Krickstein said. "I knew then that I just didn't have it in me then to continue on because I wasn't enjoying it anymore. I thought I would just take a little break and might come back, but in the end, I never did."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter, covering tennis around the world.