- Tandon Kamakshi
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"I'm here to announce that I'm definitively ending my tennis career." When Justine Henin calmly delivered that statement to an assembled press gathering at Limelette, Belgium, this May an earthquake went through the tennis world.
It was unheard of for a player to retire while still ranked No. 1 in the world, particularly an ambitious, driven 25-year-old who had reached the final in six of her last eight Grand Slams and won three of them.
But while Henin had been flourishing on court, her personal life was in flux. Her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne had ended at the beginning of 2007, with Henin missing the Australian Open as a result. She became a noticeably opener person upon her return to the tour, reuniting with her estranged family and forging a closer connection with the crowds that came to admire her stylish game and fierce resolve.
That growing emotional self-awareness also prompted Henin to more closely examine the role of tennis in her life. There were so many career moments in 2007 -- a French Open victory with her family watching in the stands for the first time, a U.S. Open victory that included wins over both Serena and Venus Williams on hard courts, and finally, a 3-hour, 24-minute classic against Maria Sharapova to win the year-end Madrid championships. What could top such a match, such a season? "That day I said to myself, I have lived everything and given everything," Henin recalled.
After searching for renewed motivation in 2008 and finding none, Henin called it quits to search for fulfillment elsewhere. "It is my life as a woman that begins now," she said when she announced her retirement.
The "Little Belgian who could" bowed out with seven Grand Slams, 41 career titles, 117 weeks at No. 1 and nearly $20 million in prize money. She also proved that a lithe 5-foot-5 frame with a flowing one-handed backhand could survive and thrive in the big babe era, as long as it was accompanied by the requisite determination and work ethic.
The women's game is still feeling the aftershocks of her abrupt departure, with three different No. 1s in the past six months and no one to compensate for the aesthetic loss of her versatile game.
Would the year have turned out very differently if Henin had continued playing? Perhaps not. Nothing in her subpar start to the season suggested that she was about to replicate the successes of 2007, and the WTA might still have experienced this period of unprecedented parity. But her absence made the subsequent chaos seem more unnatural.
Since leaving the circuit, Henin has kept a low profile but stayed busy. She increased her involvement with the series of tennis academies she established with longtime coach Carlos Rodriguez, and also started working on getting her high school diploma. Even simple things like having time to read the newspaper every day felt like luxuries after two decades dedicated to swinging a racket.
"I have to confess, I don't miss tennis," Henin wrote in a note to fans in October.
Tennis, however, will continue to miss her for a while yet.
On a sunny opening day at this year's French Open, Gustavo Kuerten walked onto Court Philippe Chatrier dressed in his trademark blue and yellow shirt. Suddenly, it felt like old times again.
Had it really been 11 years since the smiling Brazilian first graced these courts, curls bobbing as his graceful backhand swept across the clay? Back when Rafael Nadal was still a preteen hitting tennis balls in Mallorca, it was "Guga" who ruled Roland Garros. He came from nowhere to win the tournament in 1997, ranked a lowly No. 66 and defeating three former champions along the way. He proved the result was no fluke by defending his title the following year and adding a third victory in 2001.
There were no such exploits this year, just an emotional farewell match. Even though Kuerten was playing a Frenchman, Paul-Henri Mathieu, adoring spectators cheered the Brazilian's every move and laughed when he pretended to throttle Mathieu before the final game. "Here, it is my life, my passion," Kuerten told them afterward in endearingly broken French. "Most important was the love you gave me."
In 2001, he said it without words, carving a giant heart on the red clay after saving match points in the quarterfinal. It instantly became one of the sport's iconic moments, and he repeated the gesture after winning the tournament.
Kuerten's place among the legends of the dirt is secure, but his impact on other surfaces was limited. There was one exception: He clinched the year-end No. 1 in 2000 by winning the Masters Cup with back-to-back victories over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
He decided to make this year a farewell tour after a long struggle with a chronic hip injury. Continuing to play was clearly senseless -- during a first-round match at Miami in March, the 32-year-old Kuerten had to physically push his hip back into place between points. "I need a hand there," he explained wryly. "If someone hold for me, that would be great."
We would if we could, Guga. We would if we could.
More than four years after she last played a tournament, Monica Seles officially announced her retirement this February. She marked the transition in unusual fashion, taking part in the reality show "Dancing With the Stars."
Despite the long, drawn-out end to her career, Seles' successes were (fatefully) confined to a very short period. She won eight of her nine Grand Slam victories between May 1990 and May 1993 and lost just 15 matches during this span.
Then came the wretched stabbing. A deranged Steffi Graf fan, upset that his favorite had lost the top spot, approached Seles from behind during a match at Hamburg, Germany, and thrust a knife between her spine and right shoulder blade. The attack, which took place in front of 6,000 shocked spectators, psychologically devastated the 19-year-old Seles and kept her away from the court for more than two years. It also derailed the legendary rivalry she had established with Graf.
When Seles returned to the tour in the summer of 1995, she seemed practically as good as before -- with an improved serve to boot. But Graf now got the better of her at big events, and there were also injuries and a growing list of young rivals to contend with. Seles won only one more Slam, at the 1996 Australian Open.
But she still had a total haul of nine majors (seventh highest of all time) and 178 weeks at No. 1 (fifth highest of all time) in a career equally memorable for what was, and what might have been.
Jonas Bjorkman the tennis player will be missed, but Bjorkman the person will be missed even more. The pleasant, even-keeled Swede had an unexpected penchant for pranks and could imitate his fellow players to perfection long before Novak Djokovic came on the scene. But he also had a frank, serious side to his nature and was active in the tour's politics, serving as president of the ATP Player Council in 2000 and 2001.
He had to claw his way through the minor leagues but lasted a long time once he got to the main tour. Bjorkman made his first singles Grand Slam appearance at the U.S. Open in 1993 as a 21-year-old and his last at Wimbledon this year at 36. During that entire 15-year span, he missed only two Slams -- the Australian Open in 2003 and 2008, for the births of his children. His son, Max, is now 5, and his daughter, Bianca, is 10 months old.
Bjorkman's biggest career regret was losing his 1997 U.S. Open semifinal to Greg Rusedski, his best chance of reaching a Grand Slam final. He reached a career high of No. 4 and one more Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon in 2006, producing a joyous "crowd hug" that became one of his trademarks. But his friend Roger Federer was ruthless on that occasion and reduced him to a spectator. "I had the best seat in the house," said an admiring Bjorkman afterward.
He was a lot more successful in doubles, winning nine Grand Slam titles with multiple partners and reaching No. 1 in the world. One of his quirkiest wins came when he accompanied a 47-year-old John McEnroe to the doubles title at San Jose in 2006. Bjorkman joked that his fellow players were determined not to let the pair triumph again. "Imagine to lose against two (or one and a half) grumpy old men!"
But that's a description Bjorkman is never likely to fit, even when he makes his debut on the seniors circuit sometime in the near future.
Today's game can ill afford to lose a net-rushing player, particularly a friendly, down-to-earth one. But this September, following several seasons marred by illness and injuries, 27-year-old Alicia Molik called it a career.
The popular Aussie's career kicked into gear in the second half of 2004 and early 2005, when she won three titles, a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics and reached a career high of No. 8. But an ear infection then derailed her progress for over a year, and she never recovered her form in singles despite some doubles success that included winning the 2007 French Open. This year, Molik struggled just to win matches on the tour and was beset by elbow problems. After taking the opportunity to play in the Olympics one more time, she decided against continuing on the comeback trail.
"I did have a huge setback 3½ years ago, with my middle ear problem. It took awhile to get back and since then I've just struggled with a few more things that I never imagined would come along the way," she told The Melbourne Age. "But that isn't the only thing. I think I'm still young enough to focus my energies on something that I feel is again challenging."
A hurt wrist probably saved Felix Mantilla's life. It was 2005 and he was just about to travel to Cuba for two months of training when the injury led him to delay the trip and see the doctor. During the appointment, the doctor noticed something was amiss and asked the Spanish pro to come back for some skin tests. "It would have been quite normal for me to forget to go back and then go and see him again in six months," said Mantilla. "But this time I went back to the doctor because my wrist was still injured."
The doctor's instincts were correct -- the tests revealed skin cancer. Thanks to the early diagnosis, Mantilla made a full recovery and was able to make a part-time return to the circuit in April last year. He still had to take special care to protect himself from the sun, playing with a towel draped under his cap like a legionary's hat. The 1998 French Open semifinalist also devoted time to educating his fellow pros about the dangers of too much sun exposure, particularly in their line of work. His last match came in challengers qualifying at Bogota, Colombia, in September, and he's just happy he was around to play it.
The 2005 French Open semifinalist was planning to stop playing last year and then decided to hang around a little longer in hopes of playing doubles at the Beijing Olympics. But the strength of the Russian team and her own subpar results denied her a spot, and this time Elena Likhovtseva's retirement is official and definite.
The 33-year-old Likhovtseva's departure is something of a milestone because she was the first of the Russians to emerge in the post-Cold War era, predating Anna Kournikova and the wave of wannabes who followed in Kournikova's wake. Talented and something of an underachiever, perhaps she'll have a hand in producing the next generation of Russians -- she plans to take up coaching now that her pro career is over.
It's hard to say which was the more surprising: Martin Verkerk's appearance in the 2003 French Open final or the precipitous fall that followed it.
The big-serving Dutchman didn't begin to take his career seriously until he was almost 22 but made quick strides once he decided to knuckle down and won the first title of his career at Milan in early 2003. Despite that promising start to the year, his run on the red clay of Paris was still highly unexpected -- as were the bug-eyed facial expressions he made along the way. He went into the tournament as the 46th-ranked player in the world and came out as No. 15.
But injuries began to hit soon after, niggling ones at first and then more serious shoulder troubles that eventually required two surgeries. Just when it was time to return, a bout of mononucleosis sidelined him again. Being largely inactive for over two years almost drove him crazy. "It's not like I went to the psycho house, but I was close," he said at the 2007 French Open.
When this season began, Verkerk had lost his last 14 matches -- a run of futility that included all 12 events he played in 2007 and two he played in 2006. But he broke that streak in his first match of 2008 and proceeded to win four titles at futures events, finally looking like he was back on the right track.
This July, in yet another cruel twist, he got hurt again. A twisted ankle at Amersfoort -- the same place his shoulder first began to trouble him in 2004 -- snapped his momentum and he played only three more events the rest of the year. Feeling that it would take another two years to claw his way back yet again, the 30-year-old waved goodbye to tennis this week.
Clarisa Fernandez reached the French Open semifinals in 2002, by far the best result of her career. The Argentine had not even made the original cutoff for the main draw, getting in only when Martina Hingis withdrew.
She was never able to build on that unexpected success, drifting out of the top 200 by the end of 2004 after hitting a career high of No. 26 in March 2003. Injuries were mostly to blame, but perhaps she also never knew where her bread was buttered. Fernandez lists Wimbledon as her favorite tournament because of the quick, low-bouncing courts, but her best results have almost all been on slower clay surfaces. She was 26 when she played her last main-draw match at the Australian Open this January.
Poor silvery-haired Davide Sanguinetti couldn't play a match without fans pointing and whispering, "Man, how old is that guy? Is he a coach or something? He's got to be at least 45."
In fact he was only 35 when he retired in March this year. He was a serviceable pro even though his distinguished mane made him look more like the perpetually tanned businessmen sitting courtside. The Italian's best year was in 1998 when he reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and helped Italy reach the Davis Cup final.
Sanguinetti was back on the circuit later this season as Vince Spadea's coach -- not a job with the brightest long-term prospects, given that Spadea is himself 34. But at least he can make the American veteran look young beside him.
Australian women's tennis lost another stalwart this year when 34-year-old Nicole Pratt retired after playing her home Slam in January. The speedy 5-foot-4 Queenslander had her best results in doubles but did win a singles title and reach a career high of No. 35 in singles in 2002. "I gave it everything I had," said Pratt, who will begin her new role coaching Casey Dellaqua.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
Having survived the big babe era to earn seven Grand Slam titles, Justine Henin sent shock waves through the WTA Tour when she retired in May. But she wasn't the only star to hang up her racket in 2008.