Amelie Mauresmo the Sentimental Favorite to Win Wimbledon

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The New York Sun

WIMBLEDON, England – For an afternoon, there was reason to forget all the talk about prize money and whether the men’s game is carrying tennis as the women plow through sets that often prove an excellent cure for insomnia. Yesterday, the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon were worth every penny.

And the final promises something even better: excellent tennis, and a chance for redemption. When Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo last met at a major tournament, in this year’s Australian Open final, both walked away empty. Mauresmo took home the trophy, the first major of her career, but Henin-Hardenne denied her the opportunity to close out the match when she retired with an upset stomach, trailing 6-1, 2-0. The incident tarnished Henin-Hardenne’s reputation as a fighter and magnified her selfish side. It also left many unconvinced that Mauresmo had shed her habit of folding on the game’s grandest stages.

On Saturday, the two will try to get it right in the Wimbledon final. At the moment, they are the two best players in the world, and on grass no one compares. Both have an excess of flare, tactics, and touch, those wonderful qualities that so many top women lack. Neither of them has won this title, though Henin-Hardenne has played in its final once before.

In her 6-4, 7-6(4), victory over fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters yesterday, Henin-Hardenne played superbly on crucial points. But it was Mauresmo, the fragile, friendly Frenchwoman, who carried the day, keeping her nerve in check and beguiling Maria Sharapova with serve and volleys, off-speed strokes, and chip returns that dared the Russian to charge the net and knock off a volley. Sharapova was not up to the challenge, and after the last of her 40 unforced errors, Mauresmo ran and leaped in the air, pumping her fist and smiling over a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win.

Mauresmo turned 27 on Wednesday, and this was her fourth Wimbledon semifinal. The last two years, she found herself up a set and a break before losing to Serena Williams and, last year, Lindsay Davenport. Yesterday, that sad script seemed about to repeat itself. In the first set, Mauresmo was a revelation (one error and uncanny finesse).In the second, she was a wreck (11 errors and a first-serve percent of 38%).She had three points to take a 4-1 lead in the second set before letting it slip away. It seems all those visits to a sports psychologist have paid off for Mauresmo. She screamed a scream to make the shrieking Sharapova proud as the second set began to escape her – “I needed to let it go,” she said – and when the third set began, she played with pluck from the first point. Her serve reemerged, she volleyed her best, and she made the clumsy Sharapova trip over off-speed shots and low volleys. And when the 19-year-old Russian had one last chance in the third set to break Mauresmo to get back on serve, Mauresmo served an ace and eventually held for a 5-2 lead.

“I kept fighting,” she said.” I just, you know, felt it was not going to be this way this time.”

Mauresmo hopes her next meeting with Henin-Hardenne will not be like the last, either, though she could stand to end the afternoon with the same result.

She has not forgotten Henin-Hardenne’s unsporting act, tellingSI.com this week that she felt it was not a “champion’s behavior” to quit while still able run and swing. She pointed out Henin-Hardenne’s initial response to queries about her resignation: “I knew at the beginning of the match I couldn’t win it.”

Henin-Hardenne, who defended her French Open title last month, said she has put the incident behind her. She also has said she should have visited the hospital rather than attempted to play the final (her ailment was caused by anti-inflammatory medication). She tried, and could try no more. Why should she have chanced injuring herself further?

“I don’t have anything to prove to any one anymore,” she said. “I think I proved enough on the tennis court – the fighter I am, how much I can compete.”

She need not submit any further evidence of her mastery of Clijsters. Henin-Hardenne has now defeated her countrywoman three times this year, including a drubbing at the French Open semifinal. Clijsters played better yesterday, but Henin-Hardenne was resilient and resourceful, varying the pace of her shots, playing a few serve and volleys, slicing her backhand, and stepping inside the baseline to smack penetrating forehand service returns.

Clijsters tightened up at the end of the first set, losing her serve on a double fault and three errors. And when she served for second set at 6-5, Henin-Hardenne applied pressure like only she can. She took the first point of the game with a deft backhand volley on the line, and the second with a forehand volley from mid court. A point later she spun a slice backhand away from the lunging Clijsters, earning two break points. On match point, Clijsters tentatively approached the net, only to watch a Henin-Hardenne backhand fly by.

On Saturday, Henin-Hardenne will be the favorite on paper, while Mauresmo will be the sentimental choice. A Wimbledon title would complete Henin-Hardenne’s Grand Slam collection, earning her a place among the game’s elite. For Mauresmo, a win would make a fine prelude to her country’s World Cup final on Sunday.

“I hope it’s the French week,” she said. “I just hope.”

tperrotta@nysun.com


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