Commentary

Despite shocking retirement, Henin's place in tennis history among the greatest

Despite her stunning announcement she is calling it quits at age 25, Justine Henin still ranks among the greatest of the Open era.

Updated: May 14, 2008, 6:47 PM ET
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

The jarring news of Justine Henin's retirement raises questions about her place in tennis history. Unfortunately, the dialogue now takes place five to 10 years earlier than anticipated.

Of course, other players have pulled the cord sooner than most dared imagine. But Henin's news came more out of the blue than any of them. Bjorn Borg had spent a year in exile before announcing his retirement at age 26. Injuries took their toll on Martina Hingis (at least the first time she quit), Tracy Austin and Patrick Rafter. Though Pete Sampras won the 2002 U.S. Open, it was no surprise when several months later he decided 31 was a good age to call it quits. And only nearly five years after her last tournament match did Monica Seles at last opt to stop.

Henin's textured, multifaceted game, propelled by her exquisite backhand and adroit mix of offense and defense, was something tennis had never seen -- and likely will never see again. Add to that the fact that at 5-foot-5 and 126 pounds, Henin was competing against rivals who were far bigger and, in theory, stronger. Said Billie Jean King upon hearing the news, "Pound for pound, Justine is the greatest player of her generation."

So where does Henin fit in with the greats of the Open era? Here's a look at the titans of the past 40 years, their accomplishments and Henin's spot.

1. Steffi Graf: Her 22 Grand Slam singles titles say it all. She's the only player to have won at least four times at every major, as well as the "Golden Slam" in 1988, when she won all of them and added an Olympic gold medal. Graf also was Henin's idol, a player Henin watched in person playing in the 1992 French Open final. Sitting in Paris that afternoon with her mother, Francoise, Henin declared she too would one day compete on that court.

[+] EnlargeJustine Henin
AP Photo/Miguel VillagranJustine Henin and Serena Williams have had similar careers. Serena had one more Grand Slam title and led their head-to-head encounters 7-6.
2. Martina Navratilova: Her 18 Grand Slam singles victories make her the most complete all-court player in tennis history. Navratilova also won a staggering 41 doubles Slams and brought dominance to new heights for much of the '80s.

3. Chris Evert: She won 18 Grand Slam titles, highlighted by a record 13 straight years of winning at least one Slam singles title.

4. Billie Jean King: It's easy to overlook this activist's massive on-court accomplishments, which include 12 singles Slams, 27 doubles majors and the distinctive achievement of becoming the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a calendar year.

5. Margaret Court: She won a record 24 Slam singles and 62 overall. Though 11 of those singles victories came in a relatively shallow Australian Championships event, it's often forgotten that in 1970, Court won a calendar-year Grand Slam.

6. Monica Seles: It's not just that Seles won nine Grand Slam singles crowns, but she also took over the game from Graf in a rapid-fire way. Between June 1990 and January 1993, Seles won a staggering eight Slams, taking three apiece in '91 and '92 before her tragic stabbing in April '93.

More From ESPN.com

One can't keep the fire burning. The other saw a new chapter. Justine Henin and Annika Sorenstam both ended up at the same place: retirement. Mark Kreidler


Henin was a small girl in a big girls' game. Her relentless fighting spirit and resolve led her to the pinnacle of tennis but ultimately to her demise as well. Greg Garber


It's safe to say nothing came easy for Justine Henin. As unassuming as she was on the court, her life was replete with drama and emotion off of it. And now, life after tennis begins. Bonnie D. Ford

More:
• Drucker: Henin among the greatest
• Tennis.com: Irreplaceable
• SportsNation: You rank the greats
• Photo Gallery: Henin timeline
• Edgerton: Ten athletes who retired young
• What fellow competitors had to say

7. Serena Williams: Besides being the first player since Graf to complete a career Slam, Williams has earned a total of eight Slams and proven herself, if not always consistent, as a big-occasion competitor. Having lost to Henin in three Slams last year, surely Williams must be viewing her possibilities in an even more positive light than ever.

8. Justine Henin: She has seven Slams, a pair of runner-up showings in the one Slam she never won (Wimbledon), 41 tournament titles, an Olympic gold medal and three years of finishing the year ranked No. 1 in the world. (For comparison's sake, Serena and Venus Williams have done this once between them.)

9. Venus Williams: Six Slams, highlighted by four victories at Wimbledon. Also twice won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year and earned an Olympic gold medal.

T-10. Martina Hingis, Evonne Goolagong: Each peaked as a teen. Hingis took three of her five career Slams at age 16 and won 43 singles tournaments. At 19, Goolagong won the '71 French Open over a weak field, but dazzled the world when a month later she beat King and Court at Wimbledon -- and nine years later, as a mother, earned a second Wimbledon title when she defeated Evert.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.