By Robert-Jan Bartunek
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Former world number one Justine Henin has quit tennis, for a second time, after doctors advised her to end her career due to an injured elbow.
Henin, 28 and the winner of seven grand slams, became the first woman player to retire while ranked number one in the world in May 2008 but returned early last year.
She reached the Australian Open final only weeks after her 2010 comeback, losing to American rival Serena Williams, but this year in Melbourne she suffered a painful exit against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round.
"I spent the last days undergoing various medical tests and they have confirmed that my elbow has been damaged by my adventure in Australia.
"After having well considered and following the advice of doctors, it is now clear and I accept that my career here finally ends. Even though it's hard, very hard, while I came back with a tremendous fighting spirit."
Henin's classical style and finesse will be missed on the women's tour and WTA chief Stacey Allaster was quick to praise her contribution to the sport.
"Justine Henin will go down as one of the greatest female athletes of her era," Allaster said in a statement.
"She has been an incredible ambassador for women's tennis on and off the court, and her fighting spirit, tremendous courage and ultimate success has captured the minds and hearts of millions of fans around the world.
"We have all been fortunate to once again have had the opportunity to witness the beauty of her game and no doubt we will miss seeing her on court competing like only Justine can."
Henin's right elbow injury can be traced back to last year's Wimbledon, the only grand slam to elude her, when she damaged tendons in a fourth round loss to fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters.
She missed the rest of the season and though she returned this year she could not practice without pain and she was a shadow of her former self in Melbourne despite three wins.
In a letter released by her spokeswoman, her Belgian surgeon explained that Henin would have needed major reconstructive surgery and a rehabilitation period of up to a year, with no guarantee of a return to the game.
When Henin unleashed what former men's great John McEnroe once described as the "best backhand in tennis" back on the women's tour at the start of last year her return was widely welcomed and she was expected to add to her grand slam haul.
The diminutive player with a dashing one-handed style was hailed as an artist of the court, beating opponents with beguiling angles and spins rather than pure brute force.
She could mix it in the power stakes too, however, and despite being dwarfed by the army of six-footers that inhabit the women's game, she never ducked a baseline scrap.
However, on a court that witnessed some of the most magical moments of her career, she lost to Australia's Samantha Stosur in the fourth round. Henin's final crack at Wimbledon was ended by Clijsters whose own retirement U-turn has ultimately eclipsed that of her great rival.
(Writing by Philip Blenkinsop, additional reporting by Martyn Herman) To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)