Amélie Mauresmo figured her day would come but she never thought it would take seven years or require what can only be described as double-reverse psychology to get there.
In 1999, an unseeded Mauresmo reached the Australian Open final and, though she lost to Martina Hingis, most observers came away convinced the talented, powerful 19-year-old would not be without a grand slam title for long. But Mauresmo’s mind was not as sturdy as her body. While she quickly established herself as one of the world’s premier players, she also established herself as tennis’s foremost head case – a player programmed to self-destruct whenever a major trophy was within her grasp. She was dubbed the Jana Novotna of her generation after the Czech player who was so often the bridesmaid in her 12-year career.
But just as Novotna eventually found a way, on a Saturday afternoon at Wimbledon in 1998, to suppress the doubts and win her first (and only) grand slam singles championship, so Mauresmo, at this year’s Australian in January, was finally able to hold her nerve for a fortnight and let her racket guide her to victory.
Even the long-awaited triumph, over Justine Henin-Hardenne, was not without complications, however. For one thing, the final, against had to be played under the roof because it was raining in Melbourne. Worse, The match ended not with a winning shot but, rather, a white flag: down a set and an early break in the second, Henin-Hardenne retired, citing an upset stomach.
Apart from Henin-Hardenne’s lacklustre play, there were no signs of gastro-intestinal distress. – no vomiting on the court, à la Pete Sampras at the 1996 US Open (a match he nevertheless won). Her unwillingness to suffer through a few more games was despicably poor form and especially unfair to Mauresmo, who is an unfailing credit to the sport and who needed the satisfaction of closing out her first grand slam victory in proper fashion.It is doubtful Henin-Hardenne will ever be able to live down her “no mas” moment in Australia.
However, the more pressing question for Mauresmo is, having at last won a major, can she repeat the feat? She gets her first chance beginning on Sunday, with the French Open in Paris. The organizers decided to commence play on Sunday, rather than the usual Monday, in order to drum up even more interest in the event.) Mauresmo is French, though she now lives in Geneva, so naturally this is the title she most covets – and, not surprisingly, it is the one where she has been most brittle.
Because she is ranked number one in the world, Mauresmo is the top seed this year. But where you start is ultimately inconsequential; what matters is where you finish, and no one knows that better than Mauresmo.
On a humid, overcast morning in Miami two months ago, Mauresmo, in town for the Nasdaq-100 Open, sat down to chat about her victory in Australia and her ambitions. Dressed in shorts and flip-flops, her sunglasses perched above her forehead, she cut a remarkably relaxed figure – clearly a burden had been lifted and she acknowledged as much.
“After all these years of thinking and wondering whether I’d be able to win a grand slam, I was just so happy to achieve it,” she said.
She was less pleased with the way the final in Melbourne concluded. Indeed, the buzz around the Key Biscayne tennis centre that week was that she was no longer speaking to Henin-Hardenne. Mauresmo would only say that being deprived of the opportunity to finish the match was “a disappointment”.
According to Mauresmo, it was her victory at the season-ending Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships in Los Angeles last November that set her on course for triumph in Melbourne. That win was an enormous confidence boost but, at the same time, paradoxically, it liberated her to lose. She no longer felt that she had anything to prove, having captured a big title and found herself at peace with the possibility that she might never win a grand slam crown.
When she arrived in Melbourne, in January, the fear that had always followed her on to the court was gone. This permitted her, for the first time, to perform with the controlled abandon that brings success.
“After LA,” she explained, “I had the right to lose and once you don’t fear losing, you are capable of playing your best.”
Nike may be her former sponsor, but “just do it” clearly took some doing for Mauresmo. *It was during the 1999 Australian that she went public with her homosexuality. Both Hingis and the American Lindsay Davenport, whom Mauresmo defeated in the semi-finals, made remarks that were widely interpreted as digs at her sexual orientation. Davenport apologised quickly and graciously, Hingis belatedly and grudgingly.
Seven years on, Mauresmo insisted that while the episode was painful, it had nothing to do with her weak performance against Hingis in the finals – “I was not ready to win a grand slam” – or the confidence problems that later plagued her. Instead, she put her struggles down to inexperience and the fact that, unlike most of her main rivals, she was not reared to be a world-beater.
“I wasn’t raised to be a champion, like [Maria] Sharapova or Hingis. The French spirit is very different – it’s just about participation. So it took me more time to get the maturity.”
At 26, Mauresmo is old by tennis standards but she is not the first player to enjoy a belated breakthrough. She would especially like to claim her second major by winning in Paris. She has shown that she can play with aplomb on clay, having won both the Italian and German opens twice.
What she has yet to demonstrate is an ability to cope with the pressure of Roland Garros: she is adored in France and the expectations have always overwhelmed her. Indeed, she has never made it beyond the quarter-finals in Paris.
“In the past,” she said, “it has been a painful tournament for me because I didn’t know how to handle the pressure of the media, the crowds, and the pressure I put on myself. I feel if I can stay how I feel now, relaxed, I can at least play my game and then we’ll see.”
But she conceded that a Wimbledon title on the faster grass courts is the likelier prospect: “In terms of surface and the way that I play, the chances are probably more realistic for me there.”
She would surely prefer to be arriving at the French with more momentum. After a scorching start to 2006 – following the Australian, she notched victories in Paris and Antwerp – she has cooled off considerably. She was thumped 6-1 6-2 in the semi-finals in Berlin two weeks ago by her current bête noire, Henin-Hardenne, but did record a three-set quarterfinal win over her old one, Hingis), then pulled out of Rome because of illness.
Nonetheless, Mauresmo is ranked number one in the world and has to like the look of the draw. Davenport, Serena Williams and Mary Pierce have all pulled out with injuries. Kim Clijsters and Sharapova are among the upright but ailing. Hingis won last week in Rome but she has her own history to bury at Roland Garros.
The tour’s hottest player at present, Nadia Petrova, has never reached a major final. and is suspect under pressure. Henin-Hardenne is the defending champion but she has had an inconsistent season. For Mauresmo, the opportunity is there to be seized.
Should she take it, a second bottle will need to be added to the 1937 Chateau d’Yquem that awaits her. Mauresmo is an oenophile who years ago stashed away a bottle of the legendary Sauternes in order to have something suitably special to toast her first grand slam victory. Alas, five months after Melbourne, the wine has yet to be uncorked: gathering together all the people with whom she wishes to share it has so far proved logistically impossible.
Perhaps if she wins the French and throws in a bottle of the 1921 d’Yquem as well, a weekend will finally be found.