Amélie Mauresmo finally won her first Grand Slam title yesterday, but in a manner so bizarre that her opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne, who retired half-way through with a stomach upset, was accused of robbing her of a genuine victory.
Before a capacity crowd of 15,000 here, Henin-Hardenne - who earned nearly £260,000 as the runner-up - halted the Australian Open final after 52 minutes, calling for the trainer when she was 2-0 down in the second set, having lost the first 6-1.
The four-times Grand Slam champion then resumed play, but only for two more points. Spectators - who had paid £67 each for a seat - watched astounded as the Belgian No 8 seed, now 0-30 down, informed the umpire that she could not continue.
Mauresmo, who played her first and only other Grand Slam final in Melbourne seven years ago, spoke to Henin-Hardenne at the net. Then the Frenchwoman walked back on to court and acknowledged the crowd's cheers.
It was the first time in the Open era that a player had retired during a Grand Slam final. Remarkably, for Mauresmo it was her third walkover of the tournament; Michaella Krajicek pulled out with heat exhaustion in the third round and Kim Clijsters ended their semi-final after twisting her ankle.
Mauresmo, runner-up to Martina Hingis in the 1999 final, declined to say whether Henin-Hardenne should have played on. But she suggested that nerves might have contributed to the Belgian's predicament - and remarked that, for her part, "I was ready to die on the court today".
No wonder: it was her 32nd Grand Slam, preceded by losses in nine quarter-finals and four semis. Only one player in the Open era - Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon champion - took longer, 45 majors in fact, to win one.
Mauresmo agreed that it had been a "strange" turn of events. "But the joy is here," she said. "It's tough for Justine, but I think I was playing some great tennis." The No 3 seed plans to celebrate by opening a bottle of 1937 Château d'Yquem, worth about £2,000, which she has been keeping at her Geneva home precisely for this purpose.
Henin-Hardenne, who broke down in tears repeatedly after the match, said she had been suffering from stomach pain, which she blamed on anti-inflammatory medication that she was prescribed for a shoulder injury. She barely slept on Friday night, she said, and felt terrible in the morning. She was determined to play, but on court she quickly realised she was "not in good shape".
The Belgian, who won the 2004 Australian Open, was defensive when asked if she should have finished the match, not least for Mauresmo's sake. "It's my health," she said. "I was in so much pain, suffering a lot, and I might have done myself another injury."
However, she added: "I couldn't move, I had no energy. I knew at the beginning of the match that I couldn't win. I tried to stay in the match, but there was no chance for me. I couldn't put anything on the ball, so there was no reason to keep going."
No one, including Mauresmo, had had any inkling of a problem. Earlier on, the only distraction had been a loud chirping by some birdswhich were trapped inside the arena when the roof was closed ahead of a downpour.
The Frenchwoman appeared confident from the outset, and reeled off the first five games. Henin-Hardenne held serve just once before Mauresmo served out the set. The Belgian continued to struggle and, following a 33-stroke rally, called for the trainer, gulped some medicine and returned to court. Soon afterwards she conceded.
Asked if she felt sorry for Mauresmo missing out on the moment of triumph, she replied: "First I am feeling very sorry for myself, then for her. It's great when you win a Grand Slam after a big fight."
Mauresmo said her victory in the season-ending championships in Los Angeles had given her a major confidence boost. "I proved to myself that I was capable of winning a big one, against the greatest players, which maybe I was not 100 per cent sure of before," she said. "I came here thinking that this could be my day. I've been waiting so long for this and I really worked hard for it."Reuse content