Amélie Mauresmo: 'It's impossible to explain how good it felt to win. It stayed with me'
She conquered the lawns of SW19 last year, ending a run of near misses. This time, with disappointment on the Paris clay behind her once again, the pressure is off. Paul Newman met her
Published: 25 June 2007
Something has gone wrong with Amélie Mauresmo's Wimbledon preparations. Everything had gone swimmingly at the French Open, thanks to defeat in the third round, but in Eastbourne last week it all went horribly awry. She started winning matches.
This is not the Amélie Mauresmo that crowds at the All England Club have grown to love. They are used to her arriving here mentally crushed by the weight of expectation at Roland Garros, where she invariably disappoints, and with her game still in disarray, only to be revived by the sweet air of London SW19.
In the run-up to her seven previous appearances at Wimbledon, Mauresmo won a total of four matches in grass-court warm-up events. Even last year, when she went on to sweep aside the disappointment of semi-final defeats in her three previous appearances at the All England Club to win the trophy for the first time, she lost to Nathalie Dechy at Eastbourne in her only pre-Wimbledon match.
Perhaps the secret of last week's success in Sussex, where she lost in Saturday's final to Justine Henin in a third-set tie-break, was her pre-tournament visit to south-west London. Having taken 10 days off after Paris, she practised at Wimbledon for three days the week before last.
"I was very glad to play on grass again and just to be back at Wimbledon," she said. "It brought back great memories of last year." Over the last 12 months Mauresmo has loved hearing her introduction to crowds as "the Wimbledon champ-ion". To the bewilderment of some of her compatriots, her response when asked if she would swap the Venus Rosewater Dish for the French Open's Trophée Suzanne Lenglen has consistently been the same: "Definitely not".
It was not always thus. For years Mauresmo struggled on grass, despite having won junior Wimbledon in 1996. "Everything changed in 2002," she recalled. "Before, I didn't really know how to play on the surface. There was something I just didn't get. Then I started to play much more aggressively, coming into the net. From then onwards I was able to open myself to the atmosphere, to all the things around the tournament and the sheer weight of the history there."
Three runs to the semi-finals - she lost to Serena Williams in 2002 and 2004 (having missed 2003 through injury) and Lindsay Davenport in 2005 - were followed by last year's triumph. As usual she did it the hard way, beating Maria Sharapova in three sets in the semi-finals before recovering from a set down to overcome Henin.
"It's impossible to explain how good it felt to win," Mauresmo said. "I felt it on the day and that feeling stayed with me the week after and beyond that. When I see pictures even now and people talk to me about it I can still recall that emotion and the way I did it. I really went for that trophy. People used to talk about me choking, about my nerves, but with that win I threw all that away.
"When I lost the first set I just thought to myself: 'She's playing some great tennis. I can serve a bit better, move a bit better, do everything a bit better.' And when I did start to pick up, I think she started to think about things. I wasn't thinking that I was playing badly and I didn't think I was losing it mentally.
"It wasn't the best level of tennis - I think my best tennis last year was in Australia - but it was the best I could do on the day. I think I won because I served well and I was mentally stronger than her on the day.
"The end was very emotional and that's what made it all the more important. I'm the kind of player who likes to leave big emotions on the court. And when you've tasted those emotions and experienced the adrenalin that you have at the end of a big tournament like that, it makes you want more."
Only three weeks earlier her feelings had been very different after losing at Eastbourne. "I almost thought there was no point in going to Wimbledon if I played that way," she said. "I was really mad with myself. Every time after Roland Garros I feel ill at ease because of all the disappointment. I wasn't in a great mood or very good shape. But when I get to Wimbledon there's something that puts me in a different mood. I don't know what it is, whether it's the courts, the atmosphere or what.
"I stayed in Eastbourne for a couple more days to practise and I arrived at Wimbledon on the Friday and practised there on the Saturday and Sunday. Right from the moment I arrived I felt so much better. And my very first match there was so good. It's difficult to put it into words. The atmosphere is so special.
"I'd always been closer to winning Wimbledon than I had Roland Garros. When I was interviewed after I'd lost in the last 16 in Paris last year I remember saying: 'Maybe you should all just stop waiting for me to win here. Maybe this just isn't my surface. Maybe something else has to happen somewhere else.' And all of a sudden, four weeks later I was holding that trophy at Wimbledon. It shows how my game is so well adjusted to grass. I still think I can play some great tennis on clay, but it's easier for me on fast surfaces."
Mauresmo is a traditionalist at heart - she was one of the few early opponents of Hawk-Eye though she has come to enjoy the line-calling technology as much as anyone - and loves the "special atmosphere" of Wimbledon. "They've done brilliantly to preserve that," she said. "I like the fact that there's virtually no advertising on the court and everywhere is green.
"To me Wimbledon is tennis for real connoisseurs. The people who go there really know their tennis. They're different to anywhere else. They're very quiet and very much aware of what is going on on the court."
Mauresmo is far too diplomatic to voice any criticism, but you sense she may have reservations about the new-look Centre Court, which has no roof this year because of rebuilding work. "It's quite different and I think the wind might come in a little bit more," she said. "Centre Court is a place where you have so many feelings going on. I don't know if the crowd or the journalists covering it can feel it, but I know that when I walk on that court it's completely different to anywhere else."
Centre Court may have changed, but Mauresmo will be hoping the house she is renting will not have done. "One of the reasons Wimbledon is different to other tournaments is that a group of us stay together in a house. We cook there and the whole experience is very different.
"I've been staying in the village for years now. I always enjoy it. My friends come and we play cards in the evening. Last year we were watching World Cup matches with 15 people in the house. It's always like a family atmosphere, so I like it. Maybe that's what helped me relax last year.
"I didn't see the end of the World Cup final [when France lost to Italy on penalties] because I had to go to the Wimbledon ball. I watched the 90 minutes and then I had to go. We followed the penalty shoot-out on the radio. It was awful."
If the glow of winning Wimbledon has remained with Mauresmo all year, it has not prevented a moderate decline in her performances. In three Grand Slam events she has lost to Maria Sharapova in the semi-finals in New York and to Lucie Safarova in the fourth and third rounds in Melbourne and Paris respectively. Having won only one tournament in the last year, she has lost her No 1 world ranking and is now No 4.
In March, Mauresmo received the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, from President Chirac but was in hospital two days later - one assumes the events were not connected - having her appendix removed.
The recovery was painful at first, but she took full advantage of the extra time at home in Geneva. "I did a lot of shopping. My apartment was ready after I'd had some work done on it. I had to replace almost all the furniture so I was very happy to have some time to do that. Shopping was a big part of the recovery."
Mauresmo returned to competition in May, too late to find form for the French Open. "I was disappointed about Roland Garros, but the disappointment didn't last as long as it usually does. I think I was just frustrated because I'd known there wasn't the slightest chance of being 100 per cent ready."
If last week showed that Mauresmo has quickly found her feet on grass, the final was yet another example of how quickly she can let a winning position slip: she lost the first set having led 4-1 and the third after serving for the match. Having finally broken her Grand Slam duck by winning last year's Australian Open and Wimbledon, she hoped she had ditched the "choker" label. However the jury is still out - and probably always will be.
Does she agree that her game fluctuates more than anybody else's? "Maybe. But I'm not as bad as I used to be. Maybe the gap between my good days and my bad days is bigger than anyone else's. But I also think I've improved at both ends of the scale. I think my best tennis is better than it has been in the past and my worst days are better than they used to be.
"I also think I spend more days playing my best tennis than I used to. I used to have one great day followed by one bad day and I didn't know why. I even used to do that in matches, but I think I'm much more consistent now. I think I control things a bit better now. I try to see victory and defeat in a different way. I try not to give any importance to either of them. It's not easy, but that's what you have to do. You have to try to focus simply on what you're doing. I know that I used to get very hung up about both winning and losing matches."
Some would say Mauresmo is too intelligent to play tennis. Does she think too much about the game? "I probably do, but that's the way I am. I probably think too much about everything rather than just living through it. I don't find it easy to switch off after I've had a bad day. I'm intense about what I do. It's difficult to let it go as soon as you've walked out of the door. That's not how I am."
Had she ever used a sports psychologist? "I worked with someone for about 18 months a few years ago. It did help me, but I decided in the end that I had to work things out myself. Throughout my life I've always wanted to do things by myself. Yes, you have people around you to help, but in the end you have to do things yourself. It always has to come from within."