Updated: May 25, 2006, 2:04 PM ET
Mauresmo's time to win the French is now
By Greg Garber
ESPN.com Senior Writer
Life, by definition, is a window of opportunity.
In sport, where an athlete's peak of powers compresses a generation into six or seven years, that fleeting window is narrow indeed.
This year, for so many reasons, is the
year for Amelie Mauresmo. Yes, 2006 represents the best chance ever to win the tournament that means the most to her: The French Open.
Injuries and circumstance have swung in her favor, and the French native of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is positioned to produce her best result. Roland Garros, where the pressure on her -- externally and, more important, internally -- is immense, remains the only Grand Slam in which she hasn't at least escaped the quarterfinals.
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Mauresmo's game is suited for clay, yet she's just 19-11 with no titles at the French Open.
But Mauresmo arrives at the venerable venue in the leafy west corner of Paris a very different athlete than the one who lost a third-round match there to Ana Ivanovic in 2005. Mauresmo was the third seed, but fell to the teenager from Serbia in three sets.
Over the last eight months, Mauresmo has rallied famously and played the best tennis of her life. She earned the No. 1 ranking for the first time last September (becoming the first Frenchwoman to reach the top), won the year-end Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships, also for the first time, then broke through with her first Grand Slam victory in the Australian Open.
That's a lot of firsts at the relatively advanced age (in the context of professional tennis) of 26.
AMERICAN WOMEN AT ROLAND GARROS
There was a time when the French Open, at least on the women's side, was in danger of becoming the U.S. Open. In the 13 events at Roland Garros between 1974 and 1986, Chris Evert (seven titles) and Martina Navratilova (two) won nine.
In the last 19 years, however, American women have managed to win only two championships, by Jennifer Capriati in 2001 and Serena Williams in 2002. Since neither player will be in this year's draw -- Capriati seems to have retired and Williams (whose ranking has fallen to No. 108) is nursing a chronic knee injury -- odds are good that Americans will fall short again.
The two top-ranked U.S. women, Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams, are a collective 0-for-20 at Roland Garros. Davenport, ranked No. 7 at the age of 29, reached the semifinals in 1998 and three quarterfinals. No. 13-ranked Venus lost in the 2002 final to her sister. The eight remaining women among America's top 10 have a combined record of 29-41 (.414) at Roland Garros.
"Having the kind of wins that I've had in the last three, four months gave me a lot of confidence," Mauresmo said in March. "And, really, put me into a position where I'm relaxed now in the way I handle every tournament I go in, and in the way I'm walking on the court. Even though I can still have bad days, or whatever, I feel much more comfortable now than I used to."
Translation: She has relaxed and it has freed her athletic and stylish game. Mental toughness is no longer an oxymoron for Mauresmo.
"Maybe I played some better tennis at other [career] points, but mentally I was not feeling so strong," Mauresmo said. "So now I think three main things in the game -- tennis, physical, mental -- all these three really came together here."
Still, there is no pressure like a nation's yearning. England's Tim Henman and Australia's Lleyton Hewitt have the game to win at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, respectively, but are a collective 0-for-22 in their home Grand Slams. Of course, with some personalities, the pressure can have the opposite effect.
"Some people actually get better," said Mary Carillo, part of the ESPN and NBC broadcast teams at Roland Garros. "John McEnroe loved playing in New York -- that really worked for him. Yannick Noah, the only one he won [the 1983 French Open] came on home turf. With Amelie, it's tough to say what you're going to get.
"She's going to feel like she's lugging a bunch of rocks around on her back, but she's become a very good competitor the last half year and she's a fine clay court player. I mean, how many people can win this thing? Henin-Hardenne? Clijsters? Petrova? Mauresmo? That's it -- I'm running out of names.
"I wouldn't put her at the top of the list, but she's got to be in the conversation."
Let's review: Serena Williams, the 1999 French champion, is nursing a chronic knee injury and will not be in attendance. Lindsay Davenport, still a top-10 player, is out with a back injury. Venus Williams, whose ranking has fallen to No. 13 due to various injuries, has played only a handful of matches. Martina Hingis is climbing through the rankings after a three-year sabbatical, but she's never won the French and has yet to prove she's ready to win a sixth Grand Slam. Maria Sharapova, ranked No. 5 in the world, is far more comfortable on the grass at Wimbledon and the hard court of the U.S. Open.
That leaves the four women correctly referenced by Carillo:
Justine Henin-Hardenne, the defending French Open champion, has been inconsistent and split her last two clay meetings with Nadia Petrova in the last month, losing the final in Hamburg. Kim Clijsters, the No. 2-ranked player, lost to Dinara Safina a week ago in the third round at Rome. Petrova, whose ranking has risen to a career-high No. 3, is 15-0 on clay this year, winning events in Amelia Island, Charleston and Hamburg. And yet, she has a reputation for being mentally fragile; in the wake of Mauresmo's victory in Australia, Petrova might be the most talented and experienced player on the women's side not to have won a Grand Slam.
And then there is the No. 1-ranked Mauresmo. The victory in the season-end championship, which featured wins against Clijsters (ending a seven-match losing streak), Elena Dementieva, Sharapova and Mary Pierce in a grueling 3-hour, 46-minute final, gave her enormous momentum for 2006.
Mauresmo ended a 0-for-31 run in Grand Slams with a victory over Henin-Hardenne in the 2006 Australian Open final in January. It was not a classic domination by any means. Clijsters (sprained ankle) retired in the third set of their semifinal match trailing 3-2, and then Henin-Hardenne retired in the final with gastrointestinal illness after losing the first set 6-1 and trailing 0-2 in the second. It was only the second time in the Open Era (1968) a Grand Slam final ended in retirement.
It was ironic because Henin-Hardenne is one of the mentally toughest competitors in all of sport. In Mauresmo's mind, at least, the Slam wasn't tainted.
"The joy is here," she said after the championship match. "It's tough for Justine, but I also think I was playing some great tennis today.
"I've been waiting so long for this. It's really a great achievement. I have now achieved everything I announced in my career. Fed Cup, being No. 1 and winning a Grand Slam. So I'm very proud of that, I have to say. I'm probably the proudest woman for now."
In the first of her seven matches in Melbourne, Mauresmo fell into a 4-6 hole in the first set against Sun TianTian of China before winning the final two sets by identical 6-2 scores. As she progressed through the draw, Mauresmo answered the questions about her inability to win the big match with admirable grace.
"I haven't won the big one," Mauresmo acknowledged before the final. "I don't really take things like this. I don't see things like this because it's very different what I'm living and what I'm going through from what has been written and said on me. I don't really feel this way.
"I hope it's going to happen tomorrow. What can I say? Yeah, it's not very often. Some never do. You know, I'm still in position where I can still believe in doing it."
Golfer Phil Mickelson broke through his 0-for-42 streak in the majors with a win in the 2004 Masters. Now, he's won three of the nine. Is Mauresmo destined for the same trajectory?
In her post-championship press conference in Australia, Mauresmo was asked about the French Open, then five months in the future.
"I think really The Championships made me a different player," she said. "Is this title going to make me also a different one? I don't know. It's probably too early to say. I think I've achieved a lot of things now in my career. I can really be pretty relaxed now about the way I walk on the court and the way I play. "Really not too much to prove, I think, any more."