In search of an elusive win

Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne seek their first championship in England's major



WIMBLEDON, England -- When Amelie Mauresmo first got noticed at the 1999 Australian Open, it was for two things: for reaching the finals as an unseeded 19-year-old and for the way she handled unseemly comments from Martina Hingis about being "half a man."

Mauresmo lost that final to Hingis but won respect for the way she both acknowledged her relationship with another woman and said she was proud of her broad, athletic shoulders and attacking style of tennis. And based on her play, Mauresmo was expected to win a major tournament soon.

She didn't.

While her off-court life stopped being an issue and players now speak only with admiration of her strength and athleticism, Mauresmo has earned a new reputation as, to put it bluntly, a choker.

She wants to change that for good as she walks onto Centre Court today in her first Wimbledon final.

It wasn't until last January that Mauresmo finally won her first Grand Slam tournament, last January at the Australian Open, but only after Kim Clijsters retired with an injury during Mauresmo's semifinal-match win and Justine Henin-Hardenne walked away during the championship match with a stomach ailment.

So Mauresmo still hasn't won, with her own glorious strokes, a championship. But at age 27, much wiser and filled with poised calm, she now will play in her first Wimbledon final today against Henin-Hardenne. Both women are trying to win their first title here, but Mauresmo already feels like a champion. "I have overcome myself to get here," she said. "I finally believe in myself."

As Mauresmo said, it's been a pretty good week for French sports fans. The soccer team plays for the World Cup title tomorrow and Mauresmo has finally made it to the finals of the world's most famous tournament. "Pretty great, yes?" Yes.

It hasn't always been so. Her coach, Loic Courteau, said some expectations placed on Mauresmo have been "unfair," especially those at the French Open. While Mauresmo usually goes into her native land's signature event as one of the top seeds, she has never gotten past the quarterfinals.

She was thoroughly embarrassed by Serena Williams in the 2003 quarterfinals, a 6-1, 6-2 loser when some French fans booed. In 2001, Mauresmo lost in the first round to an unknown, undistinguished, nearly retired German player, Jana Kandarr. "But you must understand," Courteau said, "Amelie has a game more suited to someplace else."

Even though she is Wimbledon's top seed, Mauresmo carried no broad expectations here. "I've always felt that way coming to London," she said. "Coming out of the French Open, all the attention, the pressure, the expectation from the crowd, is so big. So whether I'm No. 1 or not coming here, it always feels like it's more relaxing. Plus the fact that my game is expressing itself very well for a few years now on the grass."

Henin-Hardenne has been strongly criticized for walking away from her Australian Open match against Mauresmo. Trailing 6-1, 2-0, Henin-Hardenne retired with a stomach ailment she said was the result of taking anti-inflammatories for other pains.

While Mauresmo spoke before the French Open of her disappointment in Henin-Hardenne and said, "We will not be friends for a while," both players have judiciously avoided talk of any ill will.

"It doesn't matter for me what happened there," Mauresmo said. "It's just one match now and in this final I have to be consistent."

Henin-Hardenne, a 24-year-old Belgian, has her own reasons to be nervous.

With a victory, she would become only the 10th woman in history to have won at least one each of the four majors. She has already won three French Opens plus one U.S. and one Australian Open.

Henin-Hardenne, seeded third, carries a 17-match winning streak into the final. Her steely on-court calm, as well as her brand of play filled with precise volleys and eagle-eyed ground strokes, makes her the favorite. But Mauresmo has won four of their nine meetings.

"Am I the underdog? Am I the favorite? I don't know," Mauresmo said. "To be honest, it doesn't really matter. It's just about the game."

Diane Pucin writes for the Los Angeles Times

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