Countdown to Wimbledon: Amélie Mauresmo, the new No 1 in SW19

After another disappointment at her home Grand Slam, the leading lady of French tennis, Amélie Mauresmo, is determined to justify being named the top seed at the All England Club. She talked to Paul Newman about losing on clay, winning on grass - and why she never reads the French newspapers
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The Independent Online

Amélie Mauresmo glances out of her hotel window overlooking the Eastbourne seafront. The deckchairs have been put away for another day and the ice cream parlours and tea rooms are preparing to shut.

"It's very quiet here," says the woman who will be the top seed at Wimbledon next week. "We don't do much. There are two or three French players here. We go to a restaurant in the evening. There's an Italian and an Indian restaurant that we've found. We alternate between them."

Is there not a French establishment which meets with their approval? "We haven't found one yet," she smiles. "This is very different to the sort of places we go all year long. But I like it."

No wonder Mauresmo enjoys her annual visit to the Sussex coast, even if she was knocked out of the Hastings Direct International Championships at the first hurdle this week for the second year in succession. Staid Eastbourne could hardly be more of a contrast to chic Auteuil, the district of Paris which is home to the French Open, but the sea breezes that blow through genteel Devonshire Park are a welcome relief after the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Roland Garros earlier this month.

The French public's expectations of Mauresmo at her home tournament have often been compared to those of Tim Henman at Wimbledon, though there is a fundamental difference. Henman has always been lifted by the support of his home crowd and has consistently performed better at the All England Club than elsewhere, whereas Mauresmo has repeatedly failed to live up to her billing at Roland Garros. In 12 attempts to win a tournament for which she regularly starts a favourite, her best efforts have been two quarter-final appearances.

This year it had all promised to be so different. Buoyed by her first victory in the season-ending Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships in Los Angeles last November, her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January and her world No 1 ranking, 26-year-old Mauresmo went to Paris talking about her new-found confidence, even if her preparations had been disrupted when she was forced to pull out of last month's Italian Open through illness.

The home fans who signed huge billboards on the way into the stadium offering support for Amélie - just as there can be only one Tim in Church Road so there is only one Amélie on the Avenue de la Porte d'Auteuil - were similarly optimistic until, without warning, her game started to fall apart in the fourth round just when she was winning the first set against Nicole Vaidisova. As Mauresmo's shots suddenly lacked penetration and conviction, so the 17-year-old Czech went on the attack and hit a stream of winners. The Frenchwoman won just three games in the final two sets.

Mauresmo stayed on in Paris afterwards - she began her Wimbledon preparations on the capital's only grass court, in the gardens of the British Embassy - and was touched by the public's reaction. "Everyone was so supportive," she said. "They all said: 'Don't worry about it. It doesn't matter. Maybe next time. We still love you'." Any criticism in the French press passed her by. "I've stopped reading the newspapers. I used to read them until the final of the Fed Cup last September. There was something I read which I didn't think was fair to me, though I'm probably too sensitive."

Mauresmo insists the defeat to Vaidisova was not down to nerves, which have so often been her downfall. "I can honestly say it was the least depressing defeat for me at the French Open," she said. "I was disappointed, of course, but not devastated, as I might have been last year. I think that was because I'd won in LA and Australia, so I didn't think I had anything to prove to anyone. I didn't play my best tennis, but Nicole played great and took her chances. She showed what a tough player she is when she went on to beat Venus Williams.

"My team and I went out that night and had a good dinner. We agreed that I hadn't quite carried out my game plan. At the start I was in control, going forward and attacking her, but for some reason I changed and wasn't quite aggressive enough. I was waiting too much for her to miss. In the past she's made quite a lot of mistakes but on this occasion she didn't. I think my physical level went down a bit at the start of the second set. Maybe I hadn't eaten properly before the match, or maybe it was because my preparation for the tournament had been a bit short."

A subsequent readers' poll in L'Equipe, France's national sports newspaper, showed that 81 per cent thought Mauresmo would never win the French Open. "I'm not disappointed or surprised," she said. "I've probably had more chances to win it in the past than I will have in the future." How would Mauresmo have voted? "I don't know. I always think my best chances of winning a Grand Slam title aren't at Roland Garros. I think I have much better chances at Wimbledon or in Australia.

"The president of the French federation, Christian Bimes, is always saying he wants a French winner at Roland Garros, but if that's the case they should provide us with some clay courts. Look at Rafael Nadal. In Spain he's playing on clay courts the whole year round. Most French players learn their game on hard courts. I learned mine on wooden indoor courts. But not clay."

Whatever the reasons for her defeat, Mauresmo is determined not to beat herself up over it. "I think I can be too critical of myself," she said. "I think I don't really see myself in the way that others see me. I can be very demanding of myself. I sometimes think you need to sit yourself down and say: 'Look. This is what I've achieved. I'm great in what I do.' You only need to take two seconds to appreciate that and then get on with things."

If she never played another match how would she feel about her career? "I think in the years ahead I would look back and think: 'How many other players achieved what I achieved?' I think I would be proud of myself. I know I should think that every day. I should be more proud of myself and more aware of what I've achieved."

And so to Wimbledon, where Mauresmo lost in the semi-finals to Serena Williams in 2002 and 2004 and to Lindsay Davenport 12 months ago. Both Americans are absent this year because of injury. "I think my best chance was last year, or maybe against Serena in 2004," Mauresmo said.

"I thought I played some really good tennis last year. It was a good opportunity. If I'd been in a situation where I am now, bearing in mind what I've done over the last few months, I think it could have been very different. I have some good weapons on grass. I like coming in to volley and I think my slice can be quite effective."

Mauresmo likes the Wimbledon crowd. "They know their tennis. They appreciate good shots, good points, good tactical play. They're fair. In most places, and especially in France, the crowd tends to side with one player, though that's obviously good for the French players. I don't like it when the French crowd start to boo and whistle players who question line calls. On clay you're allowed to check the mark where the ball's landed. Everybody has the right to check a call. That's the way it's always been. In that sense the Wimbledon crowd are much more respectful of the players." If Mauresmo does raise the Venus Rosewater Dish aloft in two weeks' time you can be sure she will celebrate with a raid on the extensive wine cellar at her home in Geneva. "I spend a lot of money on wine," she said. "I buy a lot on eBay and there are good shops in Paris and Geneva that I use. I'm crazy about it. It's my passion. It is a good investment, but that's not why I buy it. I like to drink it!"

A recently purchased 1945 Mouton Rothschild would no doubt go down well, though she has yet to open the 1937 Chateau d'Yqem with which she had planned to toast her Australian Open victory. "The bottle's at home in Geneva and since January the people I want to open it with haven't been there together at the same time," Mauresmo said. "Maybe it will be the end of the year when we open it - or after the next Grand Slam tournament I win."

Mauresmo's career record

WIMBLEDON RECORD

* 2005

Lost to Lindsay Davenport in semi-finals 6-7, 7-6, 6-4

* 2004

Lost to Serena Williams in semi-finals 6-7, 7-5, 6-4

* 2002

Lost to Serena Williams in semi-finals 6-2, 6-1

* 2001

Lost to Tamarine Tanasugarn in third round 6-4, 6-4

* 2000

Lost to Gala Leon-Garcia in first round 4-6, 6-3, 7-5

* 1998

Lost to Yayuk Basuki in second round 6-3, 6-4

BEST PERFORMANCES AT GRAND SLAMS & OLYMPICS

* 2006

Won Australian Open

Beat Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-1, 2-0 retired

*2004

Olympic Games silver medal

Lost in final to Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-3, 6-3

*2004

Best result at French Open

Lost to Elena Dementieva in quarter-finals 6-4, 6-3

*2002

Best result at US Open

Lost to Venus Williams in semi-finals 6-3, 5-7, 6-4

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