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WIMBLEDON FINALS

It's Women's Time for Breakthrough

Today, either Mauresmo or Henin-Hardenne will win her first title at the All England Club.

July 08, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — When Amelie Mauresmo first got noticed at the 1999 Australian Open, it was for two things: reaching the finals as an unseeded 19-year-old while showcasing a powerful game, 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 acknowledged her relationship with another woman and said she was proud of her broad, athletic shoulders and resounding groundstrokes. 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 got her first Grand Slam tournament title, the Australian Open, but only after Kim Clijsters retired with an injury during their semifinal match and Justine Henin-Hardenne walked away during the championship match because of a stomach ailment.

So Mauresmo still hasn't had the feeling of winning, with her own glorious strokes, a championship.

But at age 27, much wiser and more poised, she takes on Wimbledon.

Against Henin-Hardenne.

Each woman is trying to win her 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 has been a pretty good week for French sports fans. Their country's soccer team plays for the World Cup title Sunday, and Mauresmo has finally made it to the final of the world's most famous tennis tournament. "Pretty great, 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. Although Mauresmo usually goes into her native land's signature event as one of the top-seeded players, she has never gotten past the quarterfinals.

She was thoroughly embarrassed by Serena Williams in the 2003 French Open quarterfinals, a 6-1, 6-2 loser as 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."

Although she is seeded No. 1 at Wimbledon, Mauresmo didn't carry huge 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."

Indeed, Mauresmo has a big serve, big shots and a natural ability to play at the net. At Wimbledon her strengths are maximized.

Over the years Mauresmo has worked with sports psychologists and has acknowledged her nerves haven't been sturdy.

"I'm trying, I'm always trying," she said. "I'm trying to learn from the bad moments. I also learn from the moments where I was able to overcome these moments of tension.

"We're all very different. Justine was able, much younger than me, to control her emotions better. We're just all very different."

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

Although Mauresmo spoke before the French Open of her disappointment in Henin-Hardenne and said, "We will not be friends for a while," both players now judiciously avoid 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 the 10th woman in history to have won at least one each of tennis' four majors. She has already won the French Open three times, plus one title each at the U.S. Open and Australian Open.

Henin-Hardenne acknowledges thoughts of history do motivate her. Even more than winning her first Wimbledon singles title, she says a victory today would be gratifying because it would be her sixth Grand Slam tournament title.

"It would be a great achievement, but I don't want to be too focused on that. It doesn't have to be an obsession for me. I try to keep that idea away from me."

Henin-Hardenne, seeded third, carries a 17-match winning streak into the final.

Her steely on-court calm as well as her precise volleys and eagle-eyed groundstrokes make 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."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Almost even

Justine Henin-Hardenne has a 5-4 edge over Amelie Mauresmo in their nine meetings:

*--* YEAR EVENT WINNER 2006 Berlin Open Henin-Hardenne 2006 Australian Open Mauresmo 2005 Toronto Henin-Hardenne 2004 Athens Olympics Henin-Hardenne 2004 Amelia Island Mauresmo 2004 Sydney Henin-Hardenne 2003 Tour Championships Mauresmo 2003 Berlin Open Henin-Hardenne 1999 U.S. Open Mauresmo

*--*

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Source: WTAtour.com

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