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Joy replaces years of jitters, jeers

Published July 9, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England - Sometimes, you are moved by the wonder of the game. The natural drama that builds from point to point without the need of theatrics.

Sometimes, you are moved by the wonder of an athlete. The power, the speed, or maybe the skills, that defy nature's most basic laws.

And sometimes, in the rarest of circumstances, you are moved by the wonder of a life. A life such as Amelie Mauresmo's.

The 27-year-old from France won her first Wimbledon title on Saturday, coming from behind to beat Justine Henin-Hardenne 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that was less magnificent than it was fitting.

Fitting because Mauresmo was deprived of some of the joy of her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open when Henin-Hardenne retired with an upset stomach. Fitting because it had been 81 years since a French woman won at Wimbledon. But, mostly, it was fitting because Mauresmo is the portrait of a gracious athlete overcoming her greatest flaw after years of disappointment.

She has heard taunts and whispers in the locker room, along with insults from critics everywhere else. And never did Mauresmo fight back.

Instead, she just worked to get better.

"It is very sweet," Mauresmo said. "Maybe if it came the first time I was in a Grand Slam final seven years ago, it would not have the same taste.

"Things come when they have to come."

For Mauresmo, that means after years of struggling to fulfill her potential. After listening to critics who lined up one after another to compare notes on how many times Mauresmo had been called a choker.

In sports, it is the insult of last resort. Reserved for those who have proved themselves in all ways physical, but still are lacking.

It has, in the past, been used for Phil Mickelson. For Greg Norman, too. Today, it is even hurled at Alex Rodriguez and Peyton Manning, for their supposed failures in the clutch.

Most athletes recoil at the characterization. Some become angry, others act bewildered.

Mauresmo listened carefully to the charges.

And then agreed they applied.

"It didn't hurt because I was, I think, realistic. I could see that, sometimes, nerves got involved," Mauresmo said. "So that's how I am, and that's how it is. That's why, maybe, it took me longer than others."

That's what made Saturday's victory so welcome. It vindicated her willingness to be honest. And it made her sincerity seem that much more important and dignified.

For dignity is something Mauresmo has never lacked. Even after hearing Lindsay Davenport once compare her to a "guy," and being called a "half-man" by Martina Hingis. Muscularly built, and openly gay, Mauresmo admitted she felt the sting of their words, but was never moved to fire back.

And now that she has won multiple Grand Slams, perhaps she need not worry any longer.

Although Saturday's match was not particularly riveting, it showed a strength in Mauresmo that we never knew existed. She has grown over the years. She has learned from failures. She has recognized pressure is what she makes it.

That Mauresmo played poorly at the start, and was behind by a set within 30 minutes, seemed terribly foreboding. If Mauresmo is known for collapsing at key times, Henin-Hardenne is renowned for her killer instinct.

In between sets, Mauresmo sat in her courtside chair and buried her face in a towel. When she returned, it was as if a new player had arrived.

"I don't know why I did that," she said. "Just tried, maybe, to get a little extra focus and concentration."

Mauresmo's serve became more effective in the second set and was clearly the difference in the match by the third set.

"I kept fighting to the end, but she kept serving well," Henin-Hardenne said. "There is nothing to say. She took more opportunities than me."

This sudden dominance of Mauresmo's was supposed to have begun long ago. She won junior titles at the French Open and Wimbledon in 1996. She was in the final of the Australian Open as a teenager in 1999.

Yet the glory never came. Worse yet, it always seemed just out of reach. During one stretch, from 2001-05, she made the quarterfinals in 13 of 17 Grand Slam events. And, somehow, she never won, or even made it to a final.

She had to watch as new players arrived, and surpassed her in reputation and deed. Hingis. Kim Clijsters. Venus Williams. Serena Williams. Henin-Hardenne. Maria Sharapova. All younger. All Grand Slam champions long before Mauresmo.

It took her longer, nearly, than anyone in women's history. Only Jana Novotna had ever participated in more Grand Slams before finally winning. And Novotna's was a one-shot deal.

Mauresmo got her first in January and already has picked up her second. As the world's top-ranked player for the past 22 weeks, it is certainly reasonable to think more major championships could be in her future.

She couldn't wait to get the Venus Rosewater Dish in her hands after the match, almost as if she was in a hurry to let go of something else.

"I don't want anybody to talk about my nerves anymore," she joked when given the microphone at Centre Court.

For Mauresmo, that criticism is no longer applicable.

Turns out, she had the nerve to beat it.

[Last modified July 9, 2006, 02:31:22]

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