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France will rarely have a better 24 hours. First its football team reaches the World Cup final, and then its favourite tennis daughter Amélie Mauresmo finally reaches a Wimbledon final for the first time.
A losing semi-finalist for the past three years, Mauresmo finally overcame her notorious nerves and Russia’s Maria Sharapova 6-3 3-6 6-3 in an error-strewn match on Centre Court where butterflies in the stomach got the better of both players.
Indeed, tomorrow’s final will be very much a Francophone affair, with Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne having earlier beaten compatriot Kim Clijsters 6-4 7-6 in a more compelling contest that maintained a formidable quality throughout.
Mauresmo displayed the full artistry of her all-court game to win the first set and go 3-1 and 0-40 up in the second on Sharapova’s serve. Then the sight of the winning post, as so often before, gave her an attack of the vapours. Back came the tenacious Russian, the winner here in 2004, and helped by a series of Mauresmo fumbles, she not only won the game but the next five to take the set.
By now both players were overcome by what was at stake, and the final set was a nerve-ridden affair littered with break points and errors. Sharapova made most of them, however, and slumped to 4-0 down. But against Mauresmo in a big match there is always hope, and the Russian clawed back to 4-2 before the Frenchwoman finally found her serve and volley skills again and celebrated victory with a joyous leap.
Henin and Clijsters must feel like an old married couple, they have faced each other so many times. This was the 20th time they had met at senior level, and who knows how many times as juniors. And like any such a couple, the bickering was vastly entertaining as they probed away at each other’s weak spots.
Henin’s greater all-round skills carried the day, as they have tended to in recent years, and the betting will be on her to claim tomorrow the one major title that has eluded her.