Tennis: The pride after the prejudice - Strong mind to beat the burden

Ronald Atkin studies a tennis talent controversy failed to distract
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The Independent Online
THE TENNIS world had better get used to the breadth of Amelie Mauresmo's shoulders. They've been with her for a long time and, after the Australian Open, it looks as if they will be around at the summit of the women's game for quite a while yet. And her up-front, out in the open lesbianism, too.

That two-for-one yarn proved manna for the Australian media. They were not sure what was the best angle, Amelie's bulk or her homosexuality. Certainly not the tennis, despite her getting to the women's final at 19 and unseeded.

The Mauresmo shoulders had to be broad during those tumultuous days in Melbourne and she will need all her new-found strength of physique and spirit in the coming season. Virtually every French publication and radio and TV company has sought a one-on-one with Amelie in advance of her next tournament, an indoor event in Paris at the end of this month.

Mauresmo is already inside the top 20 and according to Martina Hingis, her conqueror in the Australian final, a certainty for the top 10. It was Hingis who said Amelie was "half a man" because of her relationship with Sylvie Bourdon, the 31-year-old daughter of a bar owner in St Tropez.

She brushes that comment aside as "stupid", and of the other memorably disparaging remark made in Melbourne said this: "I was a bit surprised Lindsay Davenport compared me to a man because she is bigger and heavier than me and hits the ball harder. At the time I was shocked but after receiving her note of apology I decided to treat it as history.

"I have always been built like that, a big frame and muscles, and when I was a kid it used to upset me." She took immediately to the tank top which her clothing sponsor, Nike, introduced last year but insists "wearing it is not my way of showing off my muscles and attempting to intimidate people, it is because I'm more comfortable that way".

Her new coach, Christophe Fournerie, ridicules the shoulder furore. "It is never shoulders which make tennis players great, but the head and the legs. Amelie would play just as well if she had narrow shoulders."

Mauresmo has been with Fournerie, who runs a tennis school in the Atlantic coast resort of Dinard, for only two months. Their daily training routine is a punishing one of six or seven hours, divided between physical training, on-court work and what Fournerie calls "musculation" involving the pumping of weights and leg-building exercises. "It is dynamic work and powerful," said the coach, "designed to help her develop an aggressive attitude."

He is delighted with his pupil's commitment. "Her dedication is total, she has completely surprised me. Everything that Amelie needs to do to get there, she does. One day, after six hours' work on the beach, it was necessary to drag her off to make her stop. I have never seen anyone putting such intensity into their work.

"We have a sound working relationship and we laugh a lot because it is necessary to enjoy life, too. There's no need to be miserable while doing all this work. And when you're in love, as Amelie is, you have wings."

Despite the fact that, under the nurturing of the French Tennis Federation, she became world junior champion in 1996, Mauresmo is adamant that her decision to break away was a crucial one. "When I was feeding at the breast of the Federation I felt myself a bit of a prisoner. It was like being in the army. Tennis, tennis, tennis all day and all evening. In bed by nine o'clock and nothing else. By the age of 17 I was deeply pissed off with all that because that's the age when you want to go out a bit. But I had to remind myself not to lose sight of my priorities.

"There were happy memories, of course, like winning the junior titles at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, but it was not easy to leave home at 11 to live in the world of tennis. I felt like chucking it all in when I was 12 and again at 14. Perhaps if I hadn't gone through these times I might never have got this far but I think there are other ways of doing it. Less rigid structures would permit young ones to blossom.

"Now I have found a new structure to my life, new trainer, new methods, an apartment of my own. I have the sensation of having opened out and the improvement in my game is the direct result of all that."

Another result of all that is an acrimonious split with her parents, Francis and Francoise. "The relationship is absolutely finished," said Guy Barbier, a leading French tennis journalist. "They don't want to speak to anybody about their daughter."

Mauresmo met Sylvie Bourdon three months ago and according to Sylvie (who is coyly referred to by the French sports daily L'Equipe as Amelie's "petite amie") it was un coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning. Amelie decided to make the relationship public in Australia "out of respect for Sylvie and, because my new liberation was being reflected in my play, it seemed logical that I should do so".

"Amelie's announcement was a shock at first to people in France," said Barbier, "but now she has a good image." Her numerous sponsors have decided the same and last week banded together to indicate as much, so the signs are very positive for the girl who hails from the Compiegne area, the home of France's greatest-ever women tennis player, Suzanne Lenglen.

And how does Amelie Mauresmo see herself two years from now? "High in the rankings and happy."