Mauresmo must discover nerves of steel to foil Belgian

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The Independent Online

At this stage of a tournament, according to Justine Henin-Hardenne, the difference between winning and losing becomes less a matter of tennis and more a matter of nerve.

If the 24-year-old Belgian is right, the chances of her earning the only Grand Slam title she lacks look extremely healthy today as she contemplates a final against Amélie Mauresmo, whose propensity for mental lapses has always been an agonising feature of her play.

The Frenchwoman's gift for fashioning defeat in the face of victory has been well expressed at Wimbledon, where the memories are still relatively fresh of her semi-final collapses to Serena Williams in 2004, when she held a point for a 4-1 second-set lead, and to Lindsay Davenport last year, when she led 3-1 in the second set.

Even though she came through a Wimbledon semi-final on Thursday at her fourth attempt, the way in which she allowed Russia's former champion Maria Sharapova to rally - from being a set and 3-1 up and 40-0 up on Sharapova's serve, Mauresmo contrived to allow her opponent to level at one set all - left open the possibility that today's final might witness a similarly dramatic lurch of form.

Henin-Hardenne will arrive on Centre Court in fearsomely consistent form, having won her last 12 Grand Slam matches without conceding a set - the longest winning streak since Serena Williams won 14 matches in straight sets to collect the 2002 Wimbledon and US Open titles.

Will it be lucky 13 for Henin-Hardenne today? She was characteristically unwilling to claim as much yesterday. "It wouldn't be good to have this feeling," said the woman who has progressed through this year's draw with such single-mindedness that she might have been wearing blinkers.

"The player who will be the most ambitious, who will take the opportunities, who won't be too scared to move forward, try to take her chances, will win," she said. "I will have to be brave."

As she addressed the crucial subject of nerves on the eve of her second Wimbledon final - she lost the first to Venus Williams in 2001 - she reflected on the crucial shift of attitude she managed to bring about three years ago. "I've always been emotional. I am still." she said. "But I control that much better now.

"I would say early in 2003 I felt something was different. I was seeing the game differently. I was No 4, No 5 at the time. I said 'Do you want to stay at this ranking or do you want to become a champion and win Grand Slams?' Then I knew I had to do more. I understood the efforts I had to make if I wanted to become a champion."

Some believe her efforts have occasionally stretched to gamesmanship. The most recent accusation came after her semi-final victory here over Kim Clijsters, when her fellow Belgian said she had deliberately slowed down the play at key moments.

Henin-Hardenne's actions were also questioned in January when she withdrew from the Australian Open final with Mauresmo a set and 2-0 up citing stomach pains brought on by anti-inflammatory drugs she had taken for a shoulder injury. Many felt that she had denied the 27-year-old Frenchwoman her moment of glory in earning the first Grand Slam title of her career.

The Belgian player was having nothing to do with this subject yesterday. "What happened in Australia was far away," she said. "I'm fine with that. The only thing that matters is what's going to happen tomorrow."

Mauresmo also steered clear of the incident. "Maybe it's better to ask her about this, how she feels about that," she replied. "Doesn't matter for me what happened there, but what will happen here."

In Mauresmo's favour is the fact that her game is best suited to grass and that, no matter what pressure she may feel here, it cannot compare to that she faces annually in the French Open, where her role parallels the perennial frustrations of Tim Henman at Wimbledon.

Mauresmo has made impressive viewing en route to this final - but Henin-Hardenne insists she does not watch women's tennis on the TV. Asked if that surprised her, the Frenchwoman responded with a wide grin: "That's what she says." The edge is clearly there in a final that is bound to see a new Wimbledon champion emerge. The key question appears to be whether Mauresmo can hold things together when facing the prospect of defeat. Or even worse, victory.