Combative Mauresmo buries demons to prove herself as world's best

AMELIE Mauresmo would have remained as No 1 in the world today whatever had happened on Saturday, such are the workings of the tennis rankings system.

Having beaten Justine Henin-Hardenne 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the women's singles final, she is not only the titular No 1, but the best in reality as well.

A victory for the Belgian, who is French Open champion too, would have made nonsense of the WTA's rankings. True, Mauresmo had defeated the same opponent in the final of the Australian Open at the start of the year, but that was virtually by default, as Henin-Hardenne had retired through injury just two games into the second set.

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So the Wimbledon final was the real test for Mauresmo; a genuine scrutiny of her credentials. It was a test she passed in style, and paradoxically, the manner of her victory confirmed her dominance far more than a straight-sets win would have done.

For Mauresmo, the big matches had until this year been trials by ordeal rather than trials by combat, as she was often undone by her own psyche before her opponent had ever had a chance to get at her. This match could have gone the same way - would have done not so long ago - but, after being fragile throughout the first set, she got stronger the longer the contest went on.

The top seed got off to the worst possible start, dropping her serve in the opening game. It happened again in the seventh game, then in the eighth Henin-Hardenne served out emphatically, clinching the first set with an ace.

After playing with such uncertainty, Mauresmo had to steady herself quickly, and she did so by holding serve well at the start of the second set. But, as the tension increased, both women began to make too many unforced errors, one of which from Mauresmo allowed the No 3 seed to break back to 4-3.

The next game was the pivotal point of the match: if Henin-Hardenne made it 4-4, her French opponent would be just eight points from defeat, and the pressure on her would surely become close to unbearable. But she did not make it 4-4, for Mauresmo, visibly annoyed by her foibles in the previous game, hit back immediately to go 5-3 ahead. She saved three break points in the next game to take the set, and the impetus was very much with her. The third set saw Mauresmo serve as consistently as she has ever done. She broke Henin-Hardenne in the third game and did not have to save a single break point in the set. In the last game she gave herself a reassuring platform with two aces, and won the championship on her first match point.

"There were some tough moments, but I always thought I could make it,"

Mauresmo said. "My serve and volley was not working [at first] and I was missing quite a few volleys.

"Then I was really able to pump myself up right from the beginning of the second set. And then a totally different match started."

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Predictably, that was the aspect of the match which gave Mauresmo most pleasure, as it contrasted vividly with her past failings in similar situations. "You know, you're 6-2 down against Justine in the final of a Grand Slam," she said. "You're not in such a great position at the time.

"You feel like, 'OK, what do I need to do? How am I going to turn things around? How am I going to make it go my way?

"Again, I really felt I pumped myself up. I let it out a little bit. I yelled a little bit. I was much more aggressive right from the beginning of that second set. [And in the last set] I was able really to come up with probably my best service games. So that made life a little bit easier in the last game.

"I still can't believe it. I did not really expect coming here, I wasn't feeling great. But then all of a sudden everything came together.

"It feels great. It's the most prestigious tournament in the world and it really is a special moment for me."

Henin-Hardenne acknowledged that Mauresmo's serve had been crucial, saying: "That's been probably the biggest difference between us," but suggested the past couple of months had perhaps caught up with her. "I wasn't maybe fresh enough to win this match," she added, with some reason, having played 18 matches in the past six weeks.

"It's a bit hard to lose in the final here, but I have to keep [in mind] what went pretty well in the past few weeks. I played a lot, so now I will need a little bit of a break.

"It's been pretty tough emotionally, mentally maybe more than physically in these last few weeks."

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So often in the past, though, it was Mauresmo who found things too tough mentally or emotionally. Now, at the age of 27, she has at last learned how to do justice to her own talent. Having failed even to get to a single grand slam final until this year, she has now taken two out of the past three. It would be foolhardy to bet against her winning any more in the near future.