Thursday, December 3, 2009

Au revoir, Amelie--the pleasure was all ours

original image courtesy of after atalanta

Amelie Mauresmo retired from professional tennis today, telling those gathered at her press conference that she could no longer put in the hard work that is required to play at the top of the game. The 30-year-old Frenchwoman's announcement was hardly a surprise; she said earlier in the year that she was considering retirement.

"I was lucky enough to have an exceptional career and to experience very strong feelings on the court," Mauresmo said. "I lifted trophies in every city in the world, and I lived ten magical and unbelievable years."

I can't remember when I first noticed Amelie Mauresmo. I do recall, though, that she very quickly became my favorite player on the tour. Her grace, shot variety, court intelligence, and wit drew me to her and made me a big fan. And of course, there was that gorgeous backhand with the deadly slice.

Each generation produces a player of superior grace: Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong, Hana Mandlikova, and Gabriela Sabatini all engaged in the dance of tennis, as well as the game. Then came Mauresmo. A sports writer once said of the Frenchwoman, "Tennis flows from her," and that is a wonderfully concise description of what Mauresmo's elegant game is all about.

When Mauresmo was only four, she watched Frenchman Yannick Noah win the French Open, and she decided that she would become a tennis player. It wasn't easy for her. For a long time, she had to deal with a fragile back, a problem she got around by changing her service motion, which then led to other players doing likewise. More significant, however, was Mauresmo's fragile court psyche. For a long time, she was considered the biggest head case on the women's tour, and Roland Garros was the scene of her shakiest mentality. Mauresmo is wildly popular in France, and the presumed pressure on her to win the French Open was more than she could handle.

It wasn't that Mauresmo was weak on clay. She won big tournaments like Rome and Berlin, continually fueling French hope for victory at Roland Garros. But it was not to be; rather, it was on an indoor court, a bouncy hard court, and a grass court that the French star created her greatest victories.

Mauresmo turned pro in 1993, and in 1999--19 years old and unseeded--she was the finalist at the Australian Open, losing in straight sets to Martina Hingis. She also made the top 10 for the first time that year. In 2002, Mauresmo made it to the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and lost to Serena and Venus Williams, respectively. The next year, she led France to Fed Cup victory.

Hampered by injuries to her back, leg, knee, rib, and ankle, Mauresmo missed a lot of tennis, but nevertheless continued to win important tournaments and to make consistently high showings at other tournaments. In 2004, she became the first French player, male or female, to be ranked number 1 in the world, but held the position for only five weeks. She made it to the Wimbledon semifinals and lost to Serena Williams again. At the end of the year, Mauresmo scored 3-0 in round-robin play at the year-end championsips. One of her victories was over Maria Sharapova, who won the tournamnent.

The next year--still plagued by back and adductor injuries--she reached the Wimbledon semifinals again, this time losing to Lindsay Davenport. Then, at the end of 2005, came what was later seen as a major breakthrough: Mauresmo, having announced that she felt "burned out," nevertheless proceeded to win the year-end championships, defeating Mary Pierce in the final. The Frenchwoman took the confidence that came from that victory into her 2006 season, which--for some of us--became the Year of Amelie.

Mauresmo was number 1 in the world for most of 2006, which began with a subdued and bittersweet victory in Melbourne. In the second set of the Australian Open final, with Mauresmo leading 6-1, 2-0, her opponent, Justine Henin, retired because of illness. After waiting so long to win a major, the Frenchwoman was denied hearing "Game, set, match--Mauresmo!" Instead of falling to the ground or jumping into the air, she walked over to Henin, sat down, and consoled her, then addressed the crowd with relative restraint.

However, Mauresmo was to get her sweetest victory of all later that year, when she and Henin competed in the final of Wimbledon, and Mauresmo took the title, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. With this win, she became the first Frenchwoman in the Open Era to hold the Venus Rosewater Cup. In her interview, Mauresmo suggested that fans stop talking about her nerves. I will never forget the moment she won; later, I bought champagne to celebrate the occasion.

Many of us assumed 2007 would also be a great year for Amelie, but--as so often happens in sports--a bit of bad luck all but ruined her season. She had to withdraw from several tournaments because of an emergency appendectomy. Following her recovery, an adductor strain (most likely caused by insufficient post-operative healing) knocked her out of both Toronto and the U.S. Open, and she finished the year as number 18 in the world.

In 2008, Mauresmo suffered repeated injury to her thigh. She parted ways with long-time coach Loic Courteau, who is also a close friend, and hired Hugo Lecoq. She was obviously low in confidence, and she finished the year as number 24 in the world. 2009 looked like it would be a year of resurgence when she won her 25th title in Paris in February. On her way to victory, Mauresmo defeated Agnieszka Radwanska, Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva. "She's back!" we thought, but that French victory was to be her last. Mauresmo continued to deal with injuries to her thigh and her abdomen, and--having played some of her best tennis in New Haven--she ended her season early, and finished this year just outside the top 20.

The woman who best exhibits what tennis commentator Mary Carillo calls "French flair" has had an impressive career. She won Paris, Philadelphia, Berlin, and Rome twice apiece, and she also had victories in Linz, Warsaw, Dubai, Nice, Amelia Island, Sydney, and Bratislava. Mauresmo also won the Proximus Diamond Games in Antwerp three times within a five-year span, which earned her a diamond-encrusted racquet.

Mauresmo won two doubles titles with friend Svetlana Kuznetsova, and one with Chanda Rubin. She was on the French Fed Cup team for a total of nine years, and she was also on the 2000 and 2004 French Olympic teams. In 2004, she won an Olympic silver medal in singles. In 2007, Mauresmo received the French Legion of Honor award.

An avid collector, the articulate Frenchwoman was always ready to discuss fine red wines in her interviews. She went on a difficult annual mountain climb to prepare for each tennis season, and she has long been a familiar figure, roaring through the streets on her motorcycle, in both Geneva and Paris.

She can also be quite funny. Once, after winning the Rogers Cup in Montreal, a sports writer reminded her that there would be no French-speaking crowd to encourage her in Flushing Meadows. "Well," Mauresmo deadpanned, "there's a really big French-speaking crowd in Paris, and that hasn't helped me at all." On another occasion, she described the closeness of the French players as being similar to the closeness of the Russians. "We all go out and eat together at a restaurant like they do...but it's a smaller restaurant."

In 2007, I was very excited to learn that Mauresmo had entered the Family Circle Cup, which I attend every year. There is an award-winning vineyard where I live, and I made arrangements with the tournament to deliver a bottle of very good red wine to Amelie. I was so looking forward to meeting her, but she had to withdraw following her emergency surgery. Several big names withdrew that year, but it was Mauresmo's withdrawal that disappointed me the most.

Retirements are always sad for fans, and I've been through my share of them. To have my favorite player retire, however, creates a special kind of sadness. Amelie Mauresmo was a class act, on and off the court, and I was always proud to be her fan. But perhaps more significant is the fact that her departure also accentuates the rapid disappearance of the stylish, precision-based kind of tennis that is filled with strategy and variety--the kind of tennis that is a joy to watch. Mauresmo could volley, chip, charge, slice, and spin an opponent into total frustration, all the while performing with exceptionally graceful athleticism.

I know I speak for many when I say that Amelie will be missed, and will be remembered with great fondness. She was a model sportswoman who brought intelligence and style to the court, and who overcame difficult obstacles in order to become one of the most gracious and respected champions of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.


Anonymous said...

Despite knowing it was possible, even likely -- I thought I saw something in her demeanour when she lost to Safina at Wimbledon -- I was still shocked and dismayed when I read the news this morning. But I will never forget living every moment of that 2006 Wimbledon final, urging her on in my mind and the tears of joy that we both shed when victory was hers. I'll miss her beautiful game, her insightful interviews -- even the rollercoaster ride of watching her play. I'll also make sure I get that Wimbledon match on DVD so I can reminisce about the way the women's game used to be.


Todd Spiker said...

Very nice, Diane. :)

Amelie will be missed. :(

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece Diane!

For me, Amelie is the one tennis player I imagine to be as lovely, thoughtful and intelligent off the tennis court as the game she displayed upon it.


Anonymous said...

Very beautifully written, Diane. One of the best summaries of Amelie I've seen yet.

You've written so eloquently what those of us who love the sport and its grand champions feel today.

I saw Amelie @ Indian Wells and she was a total class act. She will be missed.

I always felt embarrassed that she reportedly needed the most security when playing at the U.S. Open (versus any of the other Grand Slams) because of the anti-gay threats made against her.

Maybe you can still send over a bottle of that great wine? :)

Freddy said...

Great post! Another one who we definitely didn't see the best of.

Anonymous said...

expected but I AM SO SAD right now. Sad that I never got to see her play live, that women's tennis has lost a great athlete, an artist on court, a gentle person.

Thanks for all the great times, Amelie. Hope you really enjoy you life after tennis.

best wishes to her.


Sunny said...

I was very sad to hear about Amelie's retirement but knew it was coming. She was very honest about why and the way she felt about training. I wish I could remember when I first noticed her. I think it was her '99 final because that is what gets the attention of the media-Grand Slams and for me was the only way I was in touch with sport at that time. But I do remember a match between Amelie and Capriati either at the US Open or Wimbledon that I just really saw the loveliness of her game vs the standard which Capriati brought. She was full of flair, intelligence and athleticism. The French flair is something that is beautiful both in the WTA and ATP. But she also carried herself well off court. Mauresmo and Henin have the kind of game I like most of all. And I am not sure who is replacing them. If there is someone out there let me know. I would like to be with Amelie now toasting her with one of her fabulous wines. Amelie will be missed. THanks Diane for a wonderful tribute.

rcm said...

Thank you so much for this. You said it so beautifully.
Somehow I missed your blog while she was playing and so didn't get to read another person's appreciation of this elegant player.
I'm glad I could read what you wrote at this time.

Diane said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind words about this post.

It just won't be the same without Amelie.