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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2008

Early exits by stars not uncommon

Justine Henin retired from professional tennis yesterday. No warning, no farewell tour, no regrets. See you later, world. She is the No. 1-ranked women's player. She is 25 years old.

That announcement came about 24 hours after Annika Sorenstam said she was retiring from competitive golf at the end of 2008. Annika's decision, at least to those who have been paying attention, wasn't as surprising as Henin's. Sorenstam is no longer No. 1, but also isn't far from being back at the top of her game after an injury-plagued '07. She won an LPGA tournament just last weekend. She is 37.

These decisions, while unexpected, are not unprecedented.

Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam, taking all of golf's four major championships of the era in 1930. He then retired at age 28 with four U.S. Open titles and three British Open crowns.

Mickey Wright would likely have authored women's golf records destined to stand until the end of time. She captured 82 titles, including 13 major championships. Over a two-year stretch, 1961-62, she owned all four major titles at one time. Ben Hogan said Wright's swing was the best he'd ever seen. She retired in 1969 at the age of 34.

Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, played just nine seasons. In 1965, he rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was 29 years old. He never again carried the ball.

Barry Sanders played for 10 years with the Lions, rushing for 15,269 career yards, and touched the ball for the last time at the age of 30.

Sandy Koufax, for the kiddies out there, was the greatest left-handed pitcher of his generation. Willie Stargell said that trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork. Late in a very short career with the Dodgers, Koufax came down with an arthritic condition in his left arm. He pitched with it for two years - all he did was go 53-17 and win the last of four Cy Young Awards - and then retired after pitching in the 1966 World Series at age 30.

They walked away, for the most part, on their own terms. Jones, an amateur, had a law practice to tend to and a family to support. Wright had sore feet and Koufax a sore arm. Brown faced a now-or-never ultimatum from loathsome Cleveland owner Art Modell when his blossoming acting career conflicted with training camp, and Sanders was tired of losing.

When it seemed the time was right, the timing was their own.

Henin's decision, and the abruptness of it, is a bit hard to fathom considering her age and status. Heck, she reached the finals in every Grand Slam event in 2006 and won both the French Open and U.S. Open less than a year ago.

But tennis players have short shelf lives. They become stars while barely in their teens and it is a miserably grueling sport at the highest level.

Bjorn Borg, arguably the greatest ever, knew he was done at the age of 26. He tried a comeback a few years after that early retirement and only proved himself correct.

Sorenstam has a myriad of off-course interests - a course design career, a clothing line, a teaching center, a charitable foundation - and with marriage in the near future very much wants to be a mom.

Good for her. She was the best of her era. Good for Henin, often physically overmatched, but one of the relentless fighters in her sport.

Now, the fight is gone. And so are they.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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