- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England — Amelie Mauresmo sank into her chair after losing the first set of the Wimbledon final and buried her face in a towel.

Then Mauresmo straightened up and gave herself a little talking-to, deciding this was the moment to cast off the burden of being known as a player who couldn’t come through when it counted.

Can’t win the big one? Says who?

Holding her serve and her nerve down the stretch, Mauresmo came back to beat Justine Henin-Hardenne 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 yesterday to win Wimbledon for her second Grand Slam title — and first that she got to celebrate properly.

“I don’t want anyone to talk about my nerves anymore,” Mauresmo said.

This was a rematch of the Australian Open final in January, when Henin-Hardenne quit in the second set with stomach problems, denying Mauresmo a chance to feel what it’s like to earn a championship and leading to some ill feelings between the women.

“The way it ended is different,” the top-ranked Mauresmo said. “Now I had this final moment, especially this final point.”

She couldn’t stop smiling as she clutched the champion’s plate, as she climbed through the stands to hug her coach and supporters, as she addressed the audience, as she posed for photos, as she walked off the court with a wave.

Later, she donned a T-shirt made by her sponsor, reading: “2006 Wimbledon Champion. I am what I am.”

If the former wasn’t the case until yesterday afternoon, the latter has been for quite some time. Mauresmo willingly dissected and discussed her problems dealing with pressure, acknowledging it as a factor in her 13 losses in quarterfinals or semifinals at Grand Slams.

When she first spent time at No. 1 in the rankings in 2004, she was only the second woman to do so without having won a major. Mauresmo reached the 1999 Australian Open final, then didn’t get that far at a Slam until the same place this year.

In January, Mauresmo’s Australian semifinal ended when her opponent stopped because of an injury, and then came the anticlimactic final, so the issue of her fragile mental state lingered. But she got through three-set tests against major champions in the quarterfinals (Anastasia Myskina) and semifinals (Maria Sharapova) at Wimbledon before denying Henin-Hardenne’s bid to complete a career Grand Slam.

“Now that I see all the names on the trophy, and my name is on there — Wow! That’s not so bad,” Mauresmo said. “I was thinking about the trophy all morning, and then I got my hands on it. It was bizarre.”

She triumphed despite having fewer winners (31-28) and more unforced errors (22-20) than Henin-Hardenne, who won last month’s French Open for her fifth major title.

“Two Grand Slams in a month — it’s pretty hard,” Henin-Hardenne said.

Today, Rafael Nadal will try to become the first man to pull off a French-Wimbledon double since Bjorn Borg in 1980. Nadal faces three-time champion Roger Federer, who has won 47 consecutive matches on grass, including 27 in a row at Wimbledon.

But No. 2 Nadal is 4-0 against No. 1 Federer this year, including a victory in the French Open final.

“Sure, he’s the favorite. He has more pressure than me. That’s real. That’s true,” Nadal said. “But I’m going to play in the final of Wimbledon. I’m going to play one of the best in the history of the sport. I’m young. I hope I’m going have more opportunities, but I’m going to try my best Sunday.”

Odds are there will be far less serve-and-volley tennis in the men’s final than there was yesterday, when some points finished with both players at the net.

Mauresmo won the toss, elected to serve and promptly got broken. Henin-Hardenne broke again for a 5-2 lead, then punctuated the set with her lone ace.

At the ensuing changeover, Mauresmo thought to herself: “You’re 6-2 down against Justine in the final of a Grand Slam. You’re not in such a great position.”

And then she summoned up the strength to turn things around.

“I pumped myself up. I let it out a little bit. I yelled a little bit,” she said. “I was much more aggressive right from the beginning of that second set.”

That she was, claiming 13 of the next 17 points as Henin-Hardenne began to waver.

Perhaps because of the swirling wind, the second set contained little topflight tennis. The unforced errors were so plentiful it was as if both women were trying to smack the ball with skillets instead of rackets.

Mauresmo put in only 39 percent of her first serves in that set, and Henin-Hardenne was completely off, a star suddenly without her strokes — like the lead actress in a Shakespeare production forgetting her lines.

“I wasn’t playing my best tennis, far from that,” the third-ranked Henin-Hardenne said. “That’s the kind of day that happens.”

The Belgian botched one serve so badly it bounced before reaching the net. She missed forehands by five feet. She didn’t produce a backhand winner from the baseline all match.

Still, Henin-Hardenne broke to 4-3 thanks to three miscues by Mauresmo. Time for Mauresmo to crack? Hardly. She broke back for a 5-3 edge with a running cross-court forehand. Henin-Hardenne watched the ball fly by and cracked her racket on the court.

Mauresmo faced three break points in the next game but saved each, then ended the set with a 111 mph ace, snapping Henin-Hardenne’s 27-set Grand Slam winning streak.

Momentum hers, Mauresmo broke for a 2-1 lead in the final set, making things simple: Hold serve four times and the Wimbledon championship would be hers.

She did it in style, winning 16 of the final 21 points she served. Steady as can be. Well, mostly steady. There was still the matter of winning the final point.

She tossed the ball to serve, but something wasn’t right, so she caught it. Then she faulted.

“I was a little bit nervous on the match point,” Mauresmo said, laughing, “which is probably understandable.”

After a couple of deep breaths, she tapped in a 73 mph serve, then hung in until Henin-Hardenne dumped a forehand in the net. Mauresmo fell to her knees and raised her arms, the first Frenchwoman to win Wimbledon since Suzanne Lenglen in 1925.

She earned $1.15 million and this handwritten note from French President Jacques Chirac: “Bravo! It was magnificent! What a performance and what elegance!”

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