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Can Mauresmo beat her nerves and Serena?

By Eleanor Preston
Special to *******************

Fred Mullane/Camerawork USA, Inc.
FROM ROLAND GARROS – Amelie Mauresmo shouldn't need any motivation ahead of her quarterfinal clash with Serena Williams. After all, she is bidding to become the first French-born winner of the Suzanne Lenglen trophy since Francoise Durr in 1967 and Williams is, without doubt, the most sizable obstacle in her path.

Her smiling picture is all over Paris, on billboards and magazine covers, and her popularity is such that her matches have the ticket tours on Avenue Gordon Bennett near the stadium into a feeding frenzy.

The last time this happened was in 2001, when Mauresmo came into the tournament looking like a champion-elect after a clay court season of such dominance that no one thought she could possibly lose at Roland Garros. No one, that is, except Mauresmo herself. She allowed the pre-tournament hype to go straight to her racket arm and choked horribly against Jana Kandarr in the first round. She is still desperate to live that down and give the French crowd reason to believe in her again.

Mauresmo insists that she will not let them down again, and given that this year she has already bettered her record at Roland Garros by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time, perhaps it's time the Parisians took her at her word.

"I think that's what I am doing very well this year and what I wasn't really doing well for the past few years is handling the pressure," she said. "I don't think too much about the expectations and not really pay too much attention to what's going on around me. I'm learning a little bit from my past years here at the French Open. I think maybe I have more confidence in my game and in every shot I'm playing. It's a big difference when you can rely on a high level of tennis."

To truly expunge the memory of her choke against Kandarr, Mauresmo needs to score a big win in front of her home crowd, and they don't come any bigger than Williams.

Mauresmo has already proved this year that Serena is beatable and she was a worthy winner when the pair played in Rome two weeks ago. Her talent, best illustrated by a seemingly effortless backhand of power and verve, has never been in question, but to beat Serena requires more than that. It requires courage.

During that match we saw both sides of Mauresmo. The force of destruction for whom clay is second nature, and the nervous choker who cannot hold her racket straight when the jitters attack were both playing against Serena. She won because she managed to subdue the nervous one long enough for the destructive one to do the damage.


Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA, Inc.
She will need to do that again in an arena where the pressure and expectation will be multiplied a thousand-fold. To make her life more difficult Williams appears to be playing mind games with her.
Williams has never been one to underplay her abilities but occasionally her self-assurance borders on arrogance and in this instance, the timing would suggest that there might be more behind it.

Perhaps having five Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 ranking has gone to her head but it seems more than coincidence that she has chosen to talk herself up. Could it be that she wants to either wind Mauresmo up or frighten her ahead of their match?

Responding to the notion that the only person who can beat her is her, Williams couldn't have been more emphatic. "I think that's definitely a hundred percent accurate," she said. "Of all the matches I've lost I've pretty much beaten myself. It's not like I went out there and did everything I could and played great. It hasn't been. It's been that way for a couple of years now. Whenever I lose it's not because the girl I lost to just played an outstanding match; it's normally because I'm making 80 errors or just not doing the things I need to do."

Let's hope that if Mauresmo does beat Serena, the American will have good grace to acknowledge that Mauresmo might have had something to do with it. The French public certainly will.
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