Passion player rises above the prejudice
By Sue Mott
Amelie Mauresmo, the first Frenchwoman ever to become world No 1 (five weeks last year), is yet to match her country's aspirations with a Grand Slam title. Preferably, the French Grand Slam title.
They love her. She is as French as baguettes, unlike Mary Pierce (latterly French, previously Canadian and partially American) who won at Roland Garros five years ago
. Mauresmo is all Gaul, a statuesque figure, mocked and derided in her teens, who found the courage to acknowledge to the world that she was a lesbian and went on to practise the subtle arts of her tennis whatever the condemnation. There was none. Her country admired her openness. Women's tennis thanked God for her frankness. There was no scandal, no controversy, no cover-up, just a woman coming to terms with herself and a decent backhand.
It was frightening at the beginning," she said. "I didn't understand. All the attention. I couldn't understand how people could be so rude, but then I grew up, got some maturity. Maybe the players felt threatened by me, but that was six years ago now. To me, it seems like another life. I've done so many things, achieved so much since. I have really found myself as a woman, as a tennis player, in my head."
The rudeness to which she alluded fell heedlessly from the lips of her fellow tennis players, amazed by the sight of the quietly spoken French 19-year-old, as she was then, reaching the final of the Australian Open with a set of fully grown shoulders and a highly muscular physique. Lindsay Davenport, who lost to her in the semi-final, said, with a terrible tang of sour grapes: "She played like a man."
Martina Hingis, who beat her in the final
, called her "half a man". These were flame-throwing insults that would have embittered and broken lesser characters.
Mauresmo is neither of the above. She is, remarkably in the upper echelons of women's tennis, punctual, unfussy, apparently not of a royal bloodline and, above all, pleasantly mild-mannered. There is not a mean bone in her. Marvellous for friendships. Almost fatal for sport.
"Some players need to hate their opponents. Others need to be indifferent. Indifferent, yes?" she asked, testing the adequacy of her intelligent English. "I do not need to hate my opponent. That's not how I have been raised. Maybe sometimes I am not mean enough. Maybe I should be a little more angry. But you cannot change yourself like this." She clicked her fingers.
Mauresmo has a fine record of not changing herself at whim. She has clung to a different line throughout her life when a lie might have been easier, at least superficially. "When I came out, it was tough. I wasn't ready for it, I didn't understand. Probably my parents didn't appreciate it, even though they knew what my life was. I had known for a while. I had been asking myself some questions. The knowledge just happened. But society prepares you to grow up one way and that's why you ask yourself the questions. You are not sure if you are normal."
She was certainly unprepared for the initial interest and was possibly encouraged into her revelations by her girlfriend at the time, who owned a bar in St Tropez and seemed to revel in the attention. Compare that hopelessly unprotected girl with the woman of 25 who drove to Antwerp on Monday in her smoke-grey Porsche with the serious intention of winning the Diamond Games Indoor Tournament and you see the distinct alteration.
"I am emotional still, but I am trying to deal with it in a better way. Sometimes it's a problem, but sometimes also it is a great feeling, one of joy, happiness, adrenalin. Imagine if your whole life was just nothing." She drew a flat line across the air in front of her and looked disgusted at the mere thought of emulating Bjorn Borg's expressionism. "I have always been very emotional and very attracted to emotional things."
Perhaps Mauresmo is tennis's Edith Piaf. It may explain the mutual affection between herself and her French audience. They love her complications. "They see me as an honest person with some strong positioning on the subjects I care about. They see me as a passionate person. They recognise themselves in the struggles I have, perhaps. I try to share things with people."
In which case, the French are suffering the same theatrical campaigns in which the Brits excel. She has been No 1 in the world, true, but she has also lost, sometimes catastrophically in the cauldron of Roland Garros. She reached the semi-final at Wimbledon last year
, slicing and sweeping backhands at a discomforted Serena Williams, but not sufficiently armoured in self-belief to deliver the coup de grâce. She yearned to win an Olympic gold medal in Athens, but came away with the silver instead.
She lives alongside the reputation for arch-vulnerability in a crisis. Where is that Grand Slam title? "It will come," she said simply. "I think everyone has their own speed. I take a little more time to get my maturity than the Williams sisters or the Belgians. It's the way I am. I'm happy with that.
"It is great being popular in France. At the beginning I had some trouble with it. How to behave? But now I have found my spot in French society and I'm happy about that. People like me for what I do, for what I represent and that is very good."
Her smile reaches all the way up to her green eyes. She has consulted a sports psychologist in an attempt to cure her nervous responses to pressure, but she is clearly not an apologist for herself. She has nothing to apologise for.
Her shape? She was born with it. Into a comfortable middle-class family near Paris who had no alignment to tennis whatsoever. Aged four, little Amelie simply settled down to watch Yannick Noah win the French Open with her mother Françoise and thought: I would like to do that too. She left her parents at 11 to be schooled in tennis by the French Federation. She became conspicuously good. She was the World No 1 Junior. She won the French and Wimbledon Junior titles in 1996. "I had certain physical abilities and technical abilities. I was lucky. I grew tall. I got my build from my father's side of the family. They were all pretty tall and athletic."
As for her lifestyle, it marks her out as a woman imbued with courage and frankness. "Nobody cares about it now. They've stopped making an issue of it. I think people see the tennis player. I was once very public about my private life. Now I want to preserve - can you say that? Preserve? - my privacy. I want to live it in a quiet way. Whether I bring my girlfriend to Wimbledon, I don't know yet. I'll see. I want to protect her. But I think they wouldn't know. I don't worry about it too much. It's OK. I've been in much tougher situations."
She does not court the media, but she does not repel them either. A push me - pull you, Posh and Becks situation has no allure whatsoever. "All the eyes on them," she said in horrified wonderment. "What they do, how they dress, the new jewel. I could not be like that. I give a lot to the media but I also have my private side."
Then she has her outspoken side. She did not disguise her disapproval of the war in Iraq when she was touring, of all places, the US last year. "For a British paper this is maybe a sensitive issue?" she courteously enquired. "But I have to say I am proud that our President had this position of not going to Iraq. People asked me and I said I was against these things. I understand that sometimes you want to dominate and fight, but I'm not sure that's the answer."
Her mind ranges well beyond the usual confines of tennis courts and airport lounges. Tennis players are apt to be self-absorbed. "We are, we are," she agreed, demonstrating a set of limiting blinkers before her eyes. "But I try to be interested beyond tennis. We are in a little world but these are big issues. It's not hard to be aware of what's going on. It's scary sometimes."
The French Federation Cup Team, of which she is one, discuss such things over dinner, typical sophisticates that they are. "We are close. Very solid. We like to go to a restaurant and talk together. The Russians too, are close - but in a bigger restaurant."
She smiled at her gentle joke, acknowledging the march of the Russians in number and quality into the top berths on the women's tour. And the British? We contemplated Elena Baltacha at a table for one. "Not yet," she said kindly.
Simplistically, you imagine that Mauresmo will have to rid herself of these kindness outbreaks if she is to threaten the East-West power bloc at the top of women's tennis, represented by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. Both are murderous. Assassins. Intimidators. Predators.
"We don't see them very often. They just say, `Hi, how are you'. That's where our relationship ends. That's OK. I'm fine with that. They live their life and I live mine. That's not hard feelings or anything. Before, the women's tour had an image of a lot of jealously, rivalry, bitchiness. But, to me, that is not the case at all. We live in our different worlds, we have different people around us, that's all. It's not insulting to anybody."
Mauresmo will turn 26 at Wimbledon this year. Not too late to win a major title. In the meantime, the void has its little compensations. She has her own waxwork in the Grevin Museum in Paris and her own wine cellar at home in Geneva. She has her Harley Davidson motorbike, which, with typical modesty, she drives with restraint in the summer and not at all like a maniac around Swiss hairpin bends. She is all benevolence and sense. Perhaps that is why some commentators, perhaps even she herself, cannot quite picture the ultimate prizes falling into her hands. It is all very well having a beautiful game, a beautiful mind is no use at all.
But, Henmaniacs understand the concept of hope. So do Parisians now. And then there is Mauresmo's own contentment.
"I love this sport," she said. "The game of tennis. I love the fact that a lot of people around the world come to watch and share the emotions of the players. They give us a lot of positive things. I am lucky to live my passion and have money and freedom."
There are worse ways to chase fulfilment.