Brussels:Women's world number one Justine Henin rocked the tennis world on Wednesday by announcing her retirement from competitive tennis.
"I have decided to put an end to my tennis-playing career," she told a press conference in her native Belgium, confirming reports in the Belgian press that she was quitting the sport while still enjoying a firm lead at the top of the world rankings.
Henin, who will celebrate her 26th birthday on June 1, headed the official WTA rankings released Monday for the 117th consecutive week, but pulled out of the Rome Masters this week
"It's a big day in my life," she told assembled reporters who had greeted her entry for the conference with a round of applause.
"I know that it's a shock and a surprise for a lot of people but it's a decision I have been thinking about for some time," she said, adding that the thought had first arisen late last year.
"It's the end of a great adventure, the end of something I had dreamed of since I was five," she said, close to tears, alongside long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez.
Henin, who has seven Grand Slam titles to her name and almost 20 million dollars in career earnings since she joined the WTA Tour in 1999, has been struggling this year to reach the level of form that has earned her the last three titles at Roland Garros.
She admitted last week she was lacking confidence just two weeks prior to her French Open defence.
Henin has been beaten four times in four months in 2008 including a 6-2, 6-0 hammering by Serena Williams in Miami last month.
Her latest defeat and last appearance on court came at last week's German Open where she made a shock exit when coming off second best in a two and a half hour third round marathon against Russia's Dinara Safina.
She will be remembered as one of the finest women tennis players ever, overcoming her small stature and a troubled family life to rise to the summit of her sport.
Regarded as the best all-round player in women's tennis since Chris Evert, Henin was especially renowned for her magnificent single-handed backhand, one of the finest ever seen in the game.
This, allied to the sheer grit and determination she showed in the face of the odds allowed her to first match the big power-hitters like the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova and then march past them.
Larry Scott, chief executive officer of the WTA Tour, said Henin would be remembered as "one of the all-time great champions in women's tennis, and a woman who made up for her lack of size with a will to win and fighting spirit that was second to none".
"It is rare that an athlete leaves at the very top of her game in this day and age, but Justine has always played by her own rules, in the very best sense of those words.
"History will remember Justine for not only her seven Grand Slam titles and three years finishing as the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's World No.1, but for one of the most graceful backhands the sport has ever seen and an ability to overcome any and all obstacles placed in her way on the tennis court and off."
The Belgium Olympic Committee expressed its disappointment that Henin would not make the Beijing Games.
"Less than three months before the Olympic Games in Beijing, the committee cannot hide its disappointment," it said, adding however that it respected her decision.
"We were convinced that Justine could have been a huge motivating factor for the whole of the Belgian Olympic team.
"We were also hopeful of seeing her produce, as world number one and defending gold medallist from Athens, a great performance in Beijing."
Henin's retirement comes one year after that of her great rival Kim Clijsters, another Belgian former world No.1 who emerged at the same time as Henin and hailed from the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium.
The former US Open champion retired at just 23 blaming constant injuries and burnout from competing at the top level.