Mauresmo ends France's long wait by playing the waiting game to perfection
Amélie Mauresmo, staying faithful to the serve-and-volley game which had taken her to the brink of a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in Saturday's women's singles final against Justine Henin-Hardenne, had just put away another crisp volley.
"The crowd were great," Mauresmo recalled later in the evening. "When I stood up at 5-4 to serve for the match I heard a huge crowd yelling and clapping. Then there was nothing - complete silence. I thought: 'OK. I must be serving for the match.' In France they would still have been yelling. It was a bit scary. You feel a bit alone and that all eyes are on you."
The woman whose name has become a byword for big-match nerves prepared for what she hoped would be her final serve of the match. "I threw the ball and it caught in the wind," she said. "So instead of rushing I let the ball drop. I could hear the crowd and I was thinking, 'They're thinking I must be getting nervous now'."
Mauresmo waited and, although the ball barely limped over the net at 73mph when she eventually served, it had followed the first rule of tennis: make your opponent play. Five strokes later Henin-Hardenne put a forehand into the net and the title was in French hands for the first time since Suzanne Lenglen won in 1925.
Waiting has been a recurring theme for Mauresmo. After playing in her first Grand Slam final in Melbourne in 1999 she waited seven years for her second. Having qualified for every year-ending WTA finals tournament since that breakthrough season she waited until last year for her first victory.
Although her home crowd at Roland Garros are still hoping she might one day reproduce the form that would give her the title they crave, the waiting as far as Mauresmo is concerned is over. If her victories in the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships at Los Angeles in November and the Australian Open in January restored her self-belief, this triumph confirmed that she can beat the best on the biggest stages.
The cynics could point out that three of her 2006 Melbourne opponents had retired hurt - including Kim Clijsters in the semi-finals and Henin-Hardenne in the final - but nobody could doubt the merit of her victory here, which included wins over Anastasia Myskina and Maria Sharapova.
Mauresmo, who dispensed with her sports psychologist four years ago, said. "On 1 January this year I didn't have any Grand Slams, so just one would have made me really happy. I cannot realise right now that I have two - eight months after winning in LA last year. It shows how much I have improved and how my confidence has grown.
"I've learnt from bad defeats and good wins, even if they weren't in the majors. I began to believe in myself a lot more. I also thought: 'This is enough. Something has to happen and I have to win a big one.' That's what I thought in LA. I'd had enough of being in semis, quarters and sometimes a final. I wanted to be the one left standing on the last day."
The Wimbledon crowd, aware of all her disappointments, including three semi-final defeats here, were clearly on the Frenchwoman's side. She was also supported by a large family contingent. "That made it even more special," Mauresmo said. "They didn't come to Australia, but this was an opportunity for my mother, brother, uncles and aunts because Paris is next door.
"I didn't know where my mother was sitting during the match. She's come to watch me before in LA but this was the first time really. I thought about my father [who died two years ago]. After the match I was doing the lap of honour and I stopped in front of my mother and felt big emotions. It was tough. He was here 10 years ago when I won the juniors and he would have been so proud of me."
Bearing in mind the history of the two players - in the past Henin-Hardenne has been as ruthlessly single-minded as Mauresmo has been distracted by nerves - the remarkable fact about this final was that it was decided not by the rise and fall in Mauresmo's game but in Henin-Hardenne's. In the first set the Belgian was all but unplayable, making only four unforced errors and hitting 11 winners as she took the game to Mauresmo, even attacking the net when the opportunity arose.
However, Mauresmo kept her head. "I knew there would be a moment when I would have my opportunity," she said. "It came along and I knew that maybe doubt would creep into her head."
Mauresmo never looked back after taking a 3-0 lead in the second set. Henin-Hardenne admitted afterwards she had felt the effects of her recent exertions, including the successful defence of her French Open title. She picked her game up again in the latter stages of the second and third sets, but it was too late and she will have to wait another year for the chance to win the one Grand Slam title that still eludes her. Perhaps Mauresmo will teach her a thing or two about the waiting game.
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