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What is the most difficult name to have at the French Open? Justine Henin-Hardenne, the favourite in the women's event, laughs: "Mauresmo isn't easy, is it?"
Indeed: each year Amélie Mauresmo carries the hopes of France on her bulging, tattooed shoulders, and each year she chokes. This outrages the French. They invent tennis, centuries later finally produce a player ranked first in the world, embrace her for being gay, and then each May, just as the arrival of summer turns Paris into the best city in the world, she lets them down.
In fact, she does to the French what Tim Henman does to the British. This year she has to win. No pressure, though, Amélie.
Part of the problem is that Mauresmo understands as well as anyone in France that Roland Garros is special. She grasped this aged three, sitting in the living room with her parents watching Yannick Noah win the 1983 tournament. "He seemed so happy," she remembers. "I told myself I wanted to do the same thing." In the garden she imitated his strokes, which she did perfectly: much of sport is the ability to mimic.
The myopic engineer's daughter slogged her way to the summit, doing whatever it took including a Christmas Eve spent alone in a McDonald's in New Zealand. She developed perhaps the broadest palette of strokes in women's tennis. In 1999, aged 19, she reached the final of the Australian Open. What interested the world more, though, was her mention in Melbourne that that she had a girlfriend.
"Le coming out", to use the French phrase, was the first by a French celebrity. It was tough. At the time, French reactionaries were demonstrating against the proposed civil unions for gay couples. The country's version of Spitting Image, Les guignols de l'info,depicted Mauresmo as a removals woman who looked and talked like a man. Some players carped too: Martina Hingis, noting Mauresmo's big muscles and big strokes, called her "half a man".
Yet, after a little fuss, Mauresmo was accepted. France has changed fast since 1999: civil unions are now almost passé (or, to use the new French word, "hasbeen"). The debate has turned to whether to allow gay marriage and more lesbians have "come out" citing Mauresmo as their inspiration.
The French realised that she was charming, kind and intelligent, and embraced her. Deciding that she should win Roland Garros, they packed the courts and screamed her on. It did not help. Mauresmo succumbed to "le syndrome Roland-Garros", common among French players. She blamed one early defeat on "media pressure" and another year said: "In future I'll have to approach this with a bit less passion."
Yet she has still never got past the quarter-finals in Paris. In fact, despite having briefly been the world's number one, she has never won any of the four major tournaments.
Each spring Mauresmo tries a different remedy. She once used a sports psychologist but now her mental coach is the greatest living Frenchman: Yannick Noah.
The dreadlocked one did not have le syndrome Roland-Garros. In fact he played his best tennis there. After retiring he achieved the dream of most sports stars: becoming a pop star. Today, when he isn't singing Africanesque French rock, Noah is a sex symbol and occasional mental coach, currently working for Cameroon's national football team. Intimates reveal that his method is to talk a lot, yet without ever mentioning his pupil's weaknesses.
This fortnight, Noah is the most prominent participant in the women's event. Whenever he is spotted urging Mauresmo on from courtside, the crowd forgets the match and cheers him, which must be irritating to her. Asked once too often to define his magic, she grunts, "Nothing special", and her usual giggles dry up.
Mauresmo hasn't needed Noah yet. She began the tournament by sacrificing an Australian butcher's daughter, and then a cherubic French 15-year-old named Aliz Cornet who has a poster of Mauresmo on her bedroom wall. It was like watching a child being eaten by a wolf. Told afterwards about Cornet's poster, Mauresmo burst out laughing: "I didn't know at all!"
Everyone else in France did, which suggests Mauresmo is managing not to read the papers. The one hint of nerves she has shown so far is a tendency to blast her forehands long, the result of trying too hard to hit winners. But she always wins her easy matches. Today, against Ana Ivanovic, the 29th seed, things get harder. Mauresmo is scheduled to choke.
For once, she may not. The pressure on her is easing. Noah helps, as does the fact that the French public is getting bored with tennis in general and with her in particular.
Most significant may be the death of her father last year. It put things into perspective. Months after he died, she finally reached number one. "Today defeat doesn't have the same importance," she says.
She could calm herself with another reflection: even if she triumphs, people will remember the winner of this year's women's event as Yannick Noah.
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