Mauresmo breezes past obstacles

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The Independent Online

A Wimbledon crowd finds its entertainment where it can. A thrilling match is the best of all, but once that seems unlikely, it seeks consolation elsewhere; for example, in pigeons doing comical things such as flying and landing, or in stout line judges skipping nimbly out of the way of 130mph serves, or even in a medley of songs by Sir Cliff Richard.

If it is a particularly one-sided match there is also the fun of supporting the player on the wrong side of the net, which is why a huge cheer rose from Court 13 at around 12.45pm yesterday as Shenay Perry secured her first game of the third-round match against the No 3 seed Amélie Mauresmo, having trailed 0-6 0-2.

But the cheering, which the American acknowledged with a wave that in the circumstances was surprisingly cheerful, could not propel her back into the match. Mauresmo finished her off inside an hour, 6-0, 6-2, and in doing so became the first seed to progress to the fourth round of the women's singles.

In truth, the Frenchwoman was tested more by the wind than her opponent; it gusted quite alarmingly at times, and the nearby Union Jack flapped every which way, having spent the previous four days hanging limply in the oppressive heat, not unlike the the rest of us.

However, Mauresmo, after saving three break-points in her opening service game, never looked troubled. Not even by the wind. She has now dropped only 11 games here and feels confident that she can go further than the semi-final she reached last year, when she was narrowly beaten by Serena Williams.

"I think my game is really coming together," she said afterwards. "My game is very competitive on this surface [and] I think it's always good to go forward in the tournament without having long matches. Especially with the heat we had in the first few days."

Mauresmo briefly became the world No 1 last year, but has only once reached the final of a Grand Slam, the 1999 Australian Open which she lost to Martina Hingis, the occasion on which Hingis rather unnecessarily claimed that she was like "half a man".

It is a sizeable blot on an otherwise impressive cv. She has 17 WTA singles titles to her name, and has banked well over $7m (£4m) in prize money, a goodly amount of which she has spent on stocking her wine cellar in Geneva.

Is this to be a vintage year for her tennis? Not so far. She won on clay in Rome, but as top seed at Eastbourne a fortnight ago she was knocked out in her opening match by Vera Douchevina. And at the French Open shortly before that she compounded her reputation as a Gallic Tim Henman - in the sense that she promises more than she delivers in front of a crowd desperate for her to succeed - losing in the third round to the Serb, Ana Ivanovic.

"I'm sure he [Henman] probably feels the same way at the French Open as me here [but] the difference is even bigger for me," she said yesterday, of being relieved of the immense pressure she feels at Roland Garros.

She has a decent record here, too. She was junior champion in 1996 and first reached the semi-final in 2002 (also against Serena Williams). Able to vary conventional baseline play with skilful serve-volleying, and blessed with an extraordinarily athletic physique, she feels comfortable on grass, and it will surprise no-one if the surface yields her first major title.

If it does, it will be the first time a Frenchwoman has won the Wimbledon singles title since the great Suzanne Lenglen, in 1925. It was Lenglen's huge popularity, indeed, which played a part in the All England Club's decision to move from Worple Road to its larger present site in 1922.

Mauresmo does not yet enjoy anything like that level of affection here, but she is loudly fêted in France, far more than her flaky compatriot, Mary Pierce. Not least of what endears her to the French public is her candour about her lesbianism, and the dignified way in which she dealt with all the bitchy remarks. "It was frightening at the beginning,'' she said this year.

"I didn't understand all the attention. I couldn't understand how people could be so rude, but then I grew up, got some maturity. Maybe the players felt threatened by me, but that was six years ago now. To me, it seems like another life. I've done so many things, achieved so much since. I have really found myself as a woman, as a tennis player, in my head.'' Amélie Mauresmo, incidentally, is 25.