The happiest I've ever seen Justine Henin was away from a tennis court.
There wasn't a racket in her hand. Not a silver Grand Slam trophy. Not a million-dollar-plus winner's check. Instead, here's why Henin was giddy: She was rocking her 6-week-old niece in her arms.
It was about an hour after the lithe Belgian with the bigger-than-you'd-think strokes won the 2007 French Open. Henin was standing in a players' lounge, surrounded by her formerly estranged father and siblings, reveling more in her recently reconstructed family life than in the sixth of her seven major championships.
"This year, she is laughing, smiling, and taking pleasure in what she does," her oldest brother, David, said at the time. "I used to see her on TV, and she did not always look too happy."
Not quite a full year later, Henin again was surrounded by her relatives, again content as could be, only on Wednesday, she said she is no longer driven to be the best in her sport. She won't be defending her title at Roland Garros when the clay-court Grand Slam begins May 25, and she won't be defending her U.S. Open title in the fall, either.
All of 25, she suddenly, stunningly, walked away from tennis, the first woman to retire while ranked No. 1 by the WTA.
"I realized that I was at the end of the road," Henin said during a news conference at her tennis academy outside Brussels. "I lived through it all, I had given it all."
Henin always got by on her grit as much as her groundstrokes, and she made it quite clear Wednesday that her heart isn't in it the way it was for so long.
That's what is so surprising about the news -- and its timing.
She won the French Open each of the past three years, and four times overall. And that tournament was, after all, the first she attended in person as a fan, sitting in the stands as a 10-year-old with her mother. Two years later, her mother died of cancer.
That Henin wouldn't want to hang around for one last appearance in Paris struck plenty of people as odd.
"It's obviously a shock for the tennis world," Roger Federer said at the Hamburg Masters. "It's particularly surprising that it came one month before the French Open and two months before Wimbledon, which she has never won."
Sure, Henin has been struggling to meet her lofty standards lately, failing to go beyond the quarterfinals at her past three events. And she was walloped by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams this season, dropping a 6-0 set against each.
Still, all athletes in all sports have their ups and downs.
Henin herself went through several trying periods, including when she was off the tour for months at a time while dealing with health problems, and later when she was splitting from her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne.
She always came back, though, and overcame whatever physical or psychological obstacles presented themselves, much as she repeatedly overcame those stronger foes across the court, whether it was the Williams sisters or Amelie Mauresmo, who would tower over the 5-foot-5¾, 126-pound Henin when they met at the net for a prematch coin toss.
She did it by covering the court as well as anyone, by using a one-handed backhand John McEnroe called the prettiest shot in the game, and by mixing in rushes to the net -- all the while punctuating winners with "Allez!" and a fist pump.
Henin once spoke the phrase, "Impossible is nothing," and one of her sponsors turned that into the center of a massive marketing campaign. It captured her on-court philosophy, and was exemplified countless times, including when she beat Jennifer Capriati in the 2003 U.S. Open semifinals despite being two points from defeat 10 times and trailing 5-3 in the second set and 5-2 in the third.
Henin needed IV fluids after that match, which ended after midnight, but the next day won the final.
Henin didn't always inspire admiration among her competitors.
There was the infamous French Open match against Serena Williams in 2003, when Williams accused Henin of "lying and fabricating" about whether she'd held up a hand to stop play. And Mauresmo wasn't pleased that Henin quit against her in the second set of the 2006 Australian Open final, citing an upset stomach from pain medicine.
This much is undeniable: Henin knew how to wield a racket.
She was ranked No. 1 for more than 100 weeks, won 41 singles titles, a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics and earned nearly $20 million in prize money. When she eliminated Serena, then Venus, at last year's U.S. Open, Henin became the first woman to beat both sisters en route to a major title.
"Pound for pound, Justine is the greatest player of her generation," said Billie Jean King, who won 12 major singles titles.
"Justine is an extraordinary player and a special person," King said, "and a true champion -- both in tennis and in life."
Now that she is done with the former, Henin can focus wholeheartedly on the latter.
And what of the possibility of returning? She'd hardly be the first athlete to come out of retirement.
Henin rebuffed that Wednesday.
"When I decide something, I do it the right way," she said.
Seconds later, she added: "Last year was the best French Open that I could dream of for the last one -- with my family back, with my family in the stands. That was awesome. That was a great feeling. And I'm going to keep this feeling forever now."