Mauresmo settles the nerves


Women's singles final: When Amelie Mauresmo arrived at the point in her career and her life when she could redefine herself, a sustained, barely suppressed murmur rumbled around Centre Court.

It was curious, because while we were witnesses we were also hopeful that if Mauresmo fell it would not be too far.

We were all aware of how important it was when she stepped up to serve, and as strangers nervously eyed each other in the great Wimbledon arena, the deep breaths and giddy discomfiture of the crowd indicated the ensuing drama might just be about a pivotal moment in the destruction of the game's number-one tennis player.

The world had heard Mauresmo's story and had gasped at the breadth of her profligacy whenever pressure came on. The most developed body in the game, it seemed, housed the least developed sense of what it takes to win a Grand Slam. In addition, the Frenchwoman had marginalised herself by being honest about her sexuality.

That she is not heterosexual has long attracted a silent chorus of disapproval from some quarters that not even her endearing and reflective off-court personality could change.

But we had been looking for indications over the last two weeks, waiting for that time when she would finally get the chance at ultimate vindication, and now, after two hours' play, the moment had arrived after a battling two sets against the number-three seed, Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Mauresmo was asked to serve for the Wimbledon title against the woman who has been twice French Open champion, US Open champion and Australian Open champion.

In essence this is all the match was about: one service game at the end of the last lap, a few minutes when all the world was watching, a snapshot on which everything hinged. If she failed, Mauresmo would become the personification of the choker, a one-woman tennis equivalent of the England football team.

Success would make her a winner and bury the accusations she was a champion tennis player who could not win a championship.

"I was a little bit nervous on the match point, which is probably understandable," she said afterwards.

Certainly an understatement.

Two aces in that final game, which blitzed Henin-Hardenne and clinched the title 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, were the making of the new, improved Mauresmo.

When she won the Australian Open by default after the same Belgian opponent retired with gastroenteritis, it was viewed as a little flawed and incomplete, but with one punishing final game here, the first French player since 1925 to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish sprang free.

It had not always looked like it would be so, and when Henin-Hardenne broke Mauresmo's serve twice in the first set, the feeling was the latter would not even get the opportunity to choke.

For that you need chances to spurn, advantages to hand back, simple strokes to miss repeatedly. And of course you have to leave in the locker room, just for the occasion, your greatest weapon, the serve.

An exchange of service games in the second set suggested it could be a short match and fall to Henin-Hardenne for her career Grand Slam; Wimbledon was the only one missing from her CV.

But Mauresmo hung tough, broke for a second time and took it to a third set.

That she broke the Belgian's serve in the third game of the final set was probably just as well, because all Mauresmo had to do then was hold her serve for three more games. That she did with strength and purpose and some ease.

Mauresmo's serve-and-volley game was solid, and the missed chances at the net early in the match were replaced with assurance and accuracy.

She then stepped up for the moment and took it, allowing Henin-Hardenne just two points in the final game.

Afterwards the winner even did irony, her T-shirt bearing the legend Big Confidence.

"Sometimes I was realistic and I could see that the nerves got involved," she said.

"That is why it has taken me longer than others. Things come when they have to come. It seems that I have finally found how to handle the nerves a bit better."

And how relieved we were.