Mauresmo faces final against the clay queen

Allez la France, allez les francophones. On a weekend when Les Bleus will hope to win the World Cup final by beating Italy, two French speakers will contest the women's singles title here tomorrow. Amélie Mauresmo, who had celebrated her 27th birthday on Wednesday by watching her country's footballers reach Sunday's final, will face Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, who will be hoping to become only the 10th woman to complete a full set of Grand Slam crowns.

Mauresmo, who had lost her three previous semi-finals here and has so often frozen on the big occasion, reached her second Grand Slam final of the year by beating Maria Sharapova 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Henin-Hardenne beat Kim Clijsters, her fellow countrywoman, 6-4, 7-6.

The delight of Mauresmo was there for all to see as she celebrated her victory over Sharapova by leaping in the air and throwing her racket into the crowd. The world No 1 has suffered repeated disappointments over the years, particularly at the French Open, where she regularly starts as the favourite but has usually crumbled under the weight of expectation.

Henin-Hardenne, who has won the French Open three times and is the acknowledged queen of clay, reached her first Grand Slam final here five years ago, when she lost to Venus Williams. The Belgian, who has won five Grand Slam titles in total, reached two subsequent singles semi-finals at the All England Club, but was knocked out in the first round last year.

Mauresmo has lost five of her previous nine meetings with Henin-Hardenne, including the 2004 Olympic final in Athens and their most recent encounter, when the Frenchwoman won only three games in their semi-final in Berlin.

It will be their first meeting on grass, but their second in a Grand Slam final. Mauresmo won in the Australian Open final earlier this year, but the occasion was soured when Henin-Hardenne, complaining of stomach pains after taking anti-inflammatory tablets for an injured shoulder, retired at a set and 2-0 down. Many observers felt that Henin-Hardenne had denied Mauresmo her full moment of glory as she won her first Grand Slam title.

When reminded of the occasion Henin-Hardenne said yesterday: "I want to think about myself and another opportunity to win another Grand Slam and win Wimbledon for the first time, not think about what happened a few months ago. The situation is different." Mauresmo said bluntly: "I really think this final is going to be about tennis. That's what I want it to be."

The world No 1 beat Sharapova by playing bold and aggressive tennis, following in her serve and showing superb touch on her volleys. Mauresmo made the crucial break in the eighth game of the first set and seemed in control at 3-1 up in the second until Sharapova, at last finding accuracy to go with the ferocious power of her groundstrokes, suddenly pulled her game together to win five games in a row.

With Mauresmo serving two double-faults in successive games, it seemed that her nerve might fail on the big stage once again, but she held serve from 0-30 down at the start of the second set and immediately broke Sharapova in a tense game of five deuces. One wonderful running backhand winner even drew applause from Sharapova's father, Yuri.

From 4-0 down Sharapova recovered to 4-2 and had a point for 4-3, which Mauresmo saved with an ace. Sharapova, who has not reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament since winning the title here two years ago, lost the game when she hit a lob long and her chance was gone.

"I felt I played very well tactically today and throughout the tournament," Mauresmo said. "My game is different from what other girls play on grass, so maybe it makes it a little bit difficult for my opponent. She has to adjust every time and play a winner or passing shot almost every time."

The rivalry between Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters goes back to when they first met in a tournament in Ostend at the ages of nine and eight respectively. They have both held the upper hand at different stages of their careers but Henin-Hardenne has a clear advantage. She has won 12 of their 22 matches as senior professionals, including eight of the last 11 and three in a row in the last month.

After Henin-Hardenne's recent victories in Paris and Eastbourne, Clijsters seemed to lack the confidence to capitalise on the breakthroughs that she engineered yesterday, making too many unforced errors and failing to come to terms with her opponent's excellent serve. Henin-Hardenne's defence was as strong as ever but she also attacked when the opportunity arose, even coming into the net behind her better approaches.

Clijsters broke to lead 4-3 in the first set but immediately handed back the advantage in the following game, dropping her serve with three successive unforced errors. Two games later she presented the set to Henin-Hardenne on a plate when she lost her serve to love after a double-fault, two long backhands and a long forehand.

In the second set Clijsters twice went a break up, only for Henin-Hardenne to break back and level at 3-3 and 6-6. Henin-Hardenne made the first move in the tie-break when Clijsters netted an easy forehand winner and converted her first match point by whipping a glorious backhand return winner across court. No wonder John McEnroe has called her sumptuous one-handed backhand the greatest shot in men's or women's tennis.

The relationship between the two Belgians rarely warms beyond grudging respect and their handshake at the net could best be described as perfunctory. When she trailed early in the second set, Henin-Hardenne, who has been accused of gamesmanship in the past, started coughing in the middle of a Clijsters service game (which Henin-Hardenne subsequently won) and took a short break for a drink.

Clijsters was asked whether she thought her opponent had deliberately slowed the match down at key moments. "Yes, but she's not the only player who does that on the tour," she said. "You just don't let it bother you. You just try to go to the back of the court and focus on what you have to do."

* Britain's Andy Murray last night confirmed that he wants the American Brad Gilbert as his new coach. "It is not a done deal, but I have spoken to Brad," Murray said. "He's got a very good record as a coach and is somebody I'd like to work with." Murray hopes to have Gilbert in place before the Toronto Masters Series tournament on 7 August.

Yesterday at Wimbledon

* Second seed Rafael Nadal beat Finland's Jarkko Nieminen 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the semi-finals and a meeting with Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis.

* Amélie Mauresmo reached her first Wimbledon final - where she will meet Justine Henin-Hardenne - beating Maria Sharapova.

* Martina Navratilova left SW19 for the last time, having failed to break the titles record. She lost in both the women's doubles and the mixed.

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