Vive la resistance!
“WE HAVE TO FIGHT. WE HAVE TO CONTINUE WHAT we’re doing because, if not, then when we go on court against one of the William’s sisters the next time they will have already won. That’s no good. We have to believe in our chances. We have to be stronger.”
That’s tough talk from the current world No. 4 Justine Henin. But if anyone can challenge the William sisters’ occupation of the No. 1 and No. 2 spots then it’s the tough little Belgian, or else her doubles partner, the muscle-bound 23-year-old Amelie Mauresmo. Together the French- speaking duo are leading the resistance against the might of the American sisters.
“A day will come when Venus and Serena don’t have the same momentum as they have now,” says French No. 1 Mauresmo. “They’re tough players, but not unbeatable. Be patient. One day we will overtake them. They’re certainly not going to be at this level forever.”
Both Henin and Mauresmo know that the Williams sisters aren’t invincible. Eventually one of the players snapping at their heels will discover a way to beat them on more than an occasional basis.
“I think anybody in the top 10 can beat them once or twice during the year,” says Henin. So perhaps Jelena Dokic can cause an upset in her Collins Cup singles against Venus, and prove a point when she and Daniela Hantuchova take on the Williamses in the doubles. “The problem is beating them in the end-of-year rankings,” she continues. “To do this we have to change the style of our games a little bit. The key for me is to go more often to the net. It’s important to put a lot of pressure on them. But you can’t beat them with power because they like playing the power game.” Take note, Team Europe.
“Variation helps,” Mauresmo agrees. “I mix my game style up so they can’t get used to it. If you never let them play the same type of ball twice it can be a weapon. You also have to be focused on your serve because they serve so well. If you lose your serve it’s tough to fight back.”
It’s not just Venus and Serena’s physical domination that other players struggle against. Their mental strength is a fearsome weapon too. “All the players are a little bit intimidated by them,” admits Henin. “It’s a game the sisters play. They look at everybody almost with pretension. Their victory off the court is almost as important as their victory on it. The image that they give off means that players go on court and don’t believe in their chances. Maybe not consciously, but subconsciously. That’s our mistake.”
Mauresmo quickly concurs, “A lot of players are intimidated by the way they look, the way the walk, the confidence they have, their body language. Some players- and I used to be one of them- don’t think they have a chance of beating them. In that case they’ve already lost the match before they walk on court. I used to find them intimidating. But now I’m more confident in myself. I know that against them I have some chances and I can take them.”
It’s because of their perceived arrogance that the Williams sisters have very few real friends on the tour. “It’s a professional relationship we have with them,” says Henin, “I think that it’s hard to have good relations with the Williams sisters, but I have a lot of respect for them and I think they have for me too. Sometimes we talk together for two minutes in the locker room “How are you?” but we don’t go out as friends. It’s not really a friendship, it’s like colleagues.”
The Williamses had an upbringing vastly different to that of their European counterparts. While Henin and Mauresmo, for example, were following the traditional route from local club to regional centre to national academy, Venus and Serena were being taught by father Richard on public courts in Los Angeles with (so they say) gang members letting off Uzis all around them. If this is to be believed, Henin and Mauresmo’s upbringings were comfortably middle class by comparison.
Born in Liege in 1982, Henin attended a regional tennis centre before moving to an academy in Mons, near Brussels. It was here, at the age of 14, that she first met the coach Carlos Rodriguez. He’s been coaching her ever since. But her childhood wasn’t without trauma. In 1994, when she was just 12, her mother was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and died a year later. “For sure,” says Henin when asked if this experience toughened her up and made her a stronger person. £It helped me to be a top player. It gave me a lot of character. I always wanted to win a lot of matches for her. It helped me to fight on the tennis court.
“Of course I’d like things to be different. I was 12 when she died. That’s a very difficult age. Maybe it’s because she died that I’m now a world top 10 player. I think about her everyday. She was the most important person in my life. When I’m in a difficult time I think about her and that helps.”
Mauresmo, too, had tests too during her youth that have made her a stronger person. Apart from having to come to terms with her lifestyle (she’s currently in a happy relationship), her childhood was upset when she left home at 11 to board at a tennis academy in the Loire Valley. “I’m sure it made me tougher,” she asserts. “No question about it. I was very young and had to deal with my family not being there. I cried many times. But it was my dream to become a professional tennis player. And now I use the strength that I learned there to help me in difficult matches.”
Strength is one thing Mauresmo doesn’t lack nowadays. She has a powerfully built physique. With shoulders that would put many Bulgarian shot-putters to shame and legs that would make even Steffi Graf a tad jealous, it’s not everyone’s idea of feminine grace and beauty, but it’s beautifully sculpted all the same. And she uses her muscular assets to full advantage blasting her opponents off the court much like Venus and Serene do.
When, in 1999, Martina Hingis said that Mauresmo was “half a man”, there were of course elements of homophobia and sour grapes in the comment. But there was also an element of truth. With her long hair, lantern jaw and close together eyes (strangely similar to Bjorn Borg’s), Mauresmo looks a bit more like David Ginola than most other female tennis players. The tattoo on her left shoulder only adds to the effect. But then if anyone’s going to topple the Williams sisters, it won’t be a girly girl who does it.
Off court, Mauresmo’s persona couldn’t be more different. She’s softly spoken, smiles sweetly and exudes warmth. That’s when you realise the tattoo isn’t a hard man tattoo at all. In fact it’s an angel holding an olive branch. “It was a bet I made with my coach during the Australian Open in1999,” she says. “It’s a symbol of peace. I did an angel because I think I’m a good person. And an olive branch because I hate war and people fighting for religion.”
She stresses, though, that the peace symbol has nothing to do with her tennis. ! It’s probably not the way to win, by being an angel,” she admits. “But when I’m on the court I’m not an angel anymore!”
Angelic is a word very few would use to describe Mauresmo. If anything her playing and training regimes are demonic. When she’s not playing tournaments she spends three or four hours a day on court and up to two hours in the gym or out running. Her maximum weight lift on the bench press is a staggering 69kg, which is more than most men could lift.
“I always had very good records on weightlifting,” she says proudly. “I was always built strong and angular. Ever since I was very young I could throw the ball further than the others.”
Because of her muscularity, Mauresmo has been accused of taking steroids, something she has always strenuously denied. She won’t even touch the legal dietary supplements, and her doctor has trouble even getting her to swallow vitamin pills. It’s for this reason that she’s extremely cautious when asked if she thinks some players might be taking performance-enhancing drugs in the sly.
“At one point people were saying that I was using drugs,” she says. “So I know how it feels when you’re innocent. It’s always tough to comment on these things because you don’t have any proof and you have to be very careful. I know some players think about drugs and ask themselves questions. But I’m not into those things. It doesn’t interest me. I’m all for blood testing. I want the controls to be more strict. And random… in practice periods, holidays, when you’re at home, whenever.”
Henin is equally cautious on the subject. It’s always easy to say people are taking drugs, but has anybody proved it? For sure, maybe not everything on the tour is legal. But we can’t prove it and we don’t know it, and anyway some people are just stronger than others.”
On November 16 Henin married her boyfriend of 4 years, Pierre-Yves Ardennes. She was due to spend the off-season at the Saddlebrook Resort on the West coast of Florida, where she could train in the winter sunshine along with the likes of Capriati, Hingis and Seles. Her new husband, who works for her management team and as a kid’s tennis coach, will join her for some of the time. And of course everyone’s been asking if the newlyweds plan to have children.
“Ooooohhhh!” she sighs. “No. I’m not getting married because I plan to have children. I was telling my coach that I will not be making the mistake of having children too early. I am so happy and I plan to have a long career. As long as my motivation is there. And children come after. I have many things to do before I have children.”
One of those things is to overthrow the Williams sisters from the top of the rankings. Most people think that if their oligarchy in the game continues for too long it could harm women’s tennis. “It’s not the best thing for the WTA Tour,” says Henin. “It’s fun to see the Williams sisters in the Grand Slam finals, but if it continues like that, one day people will not go to the stadiums. One-day people are going to get tired of it. They want to see other faces and other players as well. It’s hard for fans to choose one sister over the other. When you go to a soccer match for example, you want one team to win. It’s hard for people to make this choice with the Williams sisters.”
She’s making a valid point. The great tennis rivalries, like Graf and Seles, Agassi and Sampras, Navratilova and Evert, or Borg and McEnroe, were intriguing because the protagonists were so different. Inevitably, when the two rivals are sisters, they fail to offer the public the contrast the need to be partisan.
“A long William’s domination is not a good sign for next year,” says Henin. “I hope it’s going to change.”