Escape from great expectations gives Mauresmo a chance to relax

France's unfulfilled star will spare a thought for Britain's Tim Henman over the Wimbledon fortnight, given her own extended agonies at Roland Garros. John Roberts reports
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The Independent Online

The mental aspect of winning and losing tennis matches is an abiding fascination. Consider, for example, Amélie Mauresmo, whose home Grand Slam event, the French Open, can be purgatory both for her and her long-suffering supporters. It is hardly surprising that Mauresmo, in common with others packing their bags for a trip to the seaside next week, is looking forward to a refreshing time among the holidaymakers in Eastbourne.

"It's a very beautiful place, very relaxing," Mauresmo says, contemplating another visit to the Hastings Direct International Championships. "And do you know what? After the French Open, I need to relax."

Watching the women's singles final last Saturday from a seat in the guest box at Roland Garros, Mauresmo had reason to empathise with Mary Pierce, her compatriot, who lost 6-1, 6-1 to the lively Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne.

But at least the 30-year-old Pierce has two major titles to her name, the 1995 Australian Open and the 2000 French Open - which was won in the second of her three finals on the clay courts of Paris, where Mauresmo was once the junior champion. Mauresmo was runner-up to Martina Hingis in the 1999 Australian Open, but has yet to advance beyond the semi-finals at the French. Moreover, she has been eliminated before the last 16 in seven out of her 11 appearances.

Seeded third for this year's tournament, and with the charismatic Yannick Noah in her corner, Mauresmo was beaten in the third round on the middle Saturday by the 17-year-old Ana Ivanovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Towards the end of the match, French television flashed up a cartoon depicting a nail-biting, perspiring female viewer with her hair standing on end. It could have been Mauresmo's alter ego. Pierce, explaining her loss, said she was not nervous at Roland Garros, which probably surprised Mauresmo.

"Do I get nervous? Yes, I do!" Mauresmo says. "I think it's natural [at your home tournament], but you still have to get over this if you want to do well. Doing well is getting that trophy."

Had she tried a sports psychologist? "Yes, I worked with somebody for a year and a half, which helped me a lot at the time. But then I decided I was relying too much on that person. I really wanted to take my responsibility, to make my own life decisions."

Goran Ivanisevic, asked if he had a sports psychologist, said: "No. Stay away from those guys, they make you go bananas."

Mauresmo laughs, then says: "When you have some problems you cannot resolve by yourself - and it happens - it is good to see somebody that could help you and put you in the right direction." Is there one person she admires above others? "Not really. I've never had that kind of vision of people."

She approaches Eastbourne and Wimbledon with a lighter step, relieved to have put the French Open behind her for another year.

"After Roland Garros, for me all the attention, all the pressure is off. I can understand how Tim Henman must feel a couple of weeks after Roland Garros when he gets special attention when he goes to Wimbledon. It's time then for me to have less pressure. It's great."

This should not imply that Mauresmo, a former junior champion at the All England club, is taking Wimbledon less than seriously, but rather that she welcomes the opportunity to play her shots without her mind sending panic signals to her racket hand. Although she had a brief reign as world No 1 last September, a Grand Slam title is prerequisite to a truly distinguished career. "I would love to win Wimbledon," she says.

If she is to achieve this she must first improve on two losing semi-finals against Serena Williams. Last year the American won 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, after Mauresmo had led by a set and 2-0. In 2002 Williams won 6-2, 6-1.

"In the first one she was much better than me at the time," Mauresmo recalled. "She played a great match, and I couldn't do anything to get back. And then last year I was a bit more consistent. I've had some good matches at Wimbledon."

Was she nervous in the Australian Open final against Hingis six years ago [shortly after Hingis had described Mauresmo as "half a man, because she has a girlfriend"]? "No, because at that time I was not really aware of the significance of what was happening, I was playing very unconsciously." And hoped it was going to be the first of may finals? "Of course."

A winner on clay in Rome last month, Mauresmo is usually able to make the transition to grass relatively smoothly, partly because, as Henman argues, the Wimbledon courts have slowed as a result of the introduction of ryegrass.

"I agree that the grass is a little slower now than it was a few years ago," Mauresmo says, "but it's still different. I like to play on grass. You can play from the baseline or play serve-and-volley. It's a great feeling when you walk on the grass, and I also enjoy the atmosphere at Wimbledon and the tradition."

What about the tradition at Roland Garros?"Well, I would say the tradition is much more at Wimbledon. Roland Garros is very like a family thing. Being French, I know a lot of people who go there. But Wimbledon is full of tradition. I wish they had kept the curtsy to the Royal Box. It was one of the things that made Wimbledon different."

I explain that the curtsy was abandoned at the request of the Duke of Kent, the All England Club's president, who considered it outmoded."Yes, probably," Mauresmo says, "but it made this event different. Why not?"

The last Frenchwoman to play in the singles final was Nathalie Tauziat, who lost to Jana Novotna in 1998. Mauresmo did not see the match, "because it was during the World Cup football finals in France."

France has not been able to boast a Wimbledon women's singles champion since 1925, when the balletic Suzanne Lenglen won the last of her six titles. Lenglen's popularity was one of the reasons the All England Club moved its home from Worple Road to the more spacious grounds on Church Road in 1922.

Last year the Russian teenager Maria Sharapova ended four years of domination by the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. The women's game has also seen the rise of two Belgian world No 1s, Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, who have yet to win Wimbledon. Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion, is back in the mix, and Mauresmo is again among the contenders. The title would appear to be up for grabs.

"That's true at all the big tournaments," Mauresmo says. "There are now, let's say, eight to 10 players who can win a Grand Slam championship, which is a lot. It's good. It's becoming a little bit like the men."

Two days after Wimbledon, Mauresmo marks her 26th birthday, and what gift could be better than a major title?

She believes she is in her prime. "I think I'm at that time now. Starting last year and in the next couple of years. I enjoy my tennis much more than I used to do."

Does she still play thinking, "Isn't this marvellous, being here, doing this?"

"Yes, sometimes you say that, but sometimes you wish you were somewhere else."

Such as being at home in Geneva, relaxing to Dido's music and spending time with her golden retriever, Sophia. "I got her in Rome about four years ago. Unfortunately, I don't spend enough time with her. My mother takes care of her when I'm away."

Her favourite film is Phillip Noyce's The Bone Collector. "I like it because the heroine [Angelina Jolie, playing a detective] has to make her mind work to find the guy [a serial killer], to discover everything that leads her to him. It's the kind of movie that makes you think while you watch."

Mauresmo has a wine cellar stocked with 600 bottles, all but 50 of them red. "A year and a half ago, when I was injured, I went to the Bordeaux area for a few days, which was great. I bought some wine there. I think my interest in wine will grow, because I want to learn so much more about it."

Someone once said that life is too short for cheap wine. Mauresmo agrees. One day, perhaps, there will be a reason for the finest champagne to be delivered to the locker-room.

The Hastings Direct International Championships box office can be contacted on 01323 412000.