Friday, December 24, 2004

2005 Intriguing Question #10

2005 is closing in fast, so it's that time again. No, not THAT time! The presents can wait for a few more minutes, right? I'm talking about it being time for Backspin to awaken from its (too) short winter's nap. Time to peer ahead at the long road that lies ahead over the next eleven months (think back, doesn't that all-Belgian Aussie final of last January seem a quaint anachronism following 2004's ultimate Russian onslaught?). Time to guess at what are going to be the most intriguing WTA stories for the upcoming season.

First up, a look at an example of great talent meeting up with equally great expectations... and struggling to find a common ground.


Amelie Mauresmo wants to change her WTA bio. As things stand, no one argues that she's not a fine player. At age 25, she's had a career the majority of the WTA field would die for. But, if you're able to read between the lines of her list of accomplishments, it's apparent that she still can't shake the persistent fact that she's just good enough to be saddled with the label of "underachiever."

Whether it's been her head, heart, body, nerves, Venus, Serena or whichever other top player prevents her from taking one additional step, with Mauresmo one thing has always been certain -- it'll always be something that keeps her from being fully satisfied on the four most important weekends of the tennis season.

It's too bad, really. She's more than proven that her high station in the game is no hoax. Her resume is impressive: a grand slam finalist (Oz '99) and three-time semifinalist, a five-time Tier I champion, one of just three players (along with Steffi Graf & Monica Seles) to ever win Berlin & Rome back-to-back on the red clay, and a former #1-ranked player in the world (for five weeks late last season). But it's not enough. When she rose to #1 in September, it speaks volumes about the "black hole" in her bio that Mauresmo was only the second (along with Kim Clijsters) to do so without having won a grand slam singles title. In measuring her potential Hall of Fame credentials, it's the one (and only) area where she has yet to measure up.

As Mauresmo enters a 2005 season in which she'll turn 26 (just two years younger than the current "veteran" #1 Lindsay Davenport), a new generation is beginning to replace the old. The Russians are everywhere, and even 16-year old Tatiana Golovin is gearing up to inherit Mauresmo's long-standing mantle as the top French woman in the game. For five years, Mauresmo's year-end singles ranking has risen, from #16 to #9, then from #6 to #4 before her current #2 position. There's not much more room to improve in that area, and she's already publicly stated that being #1 isn't her "main concern." Time is running out for Mauresmo to claim her elusive slam crown, and she knows it.

Problem is, positioned between the Davenport/Capriati generation and the new wave of teenagers, Mauresmo might have already missed out on her last best chance to clear her career's final hurdle. 2004 was her best season yet, but even amidst her exceptional feats, Mauresmo's performances in the slams left much to be desired and only further ingrained her "Tier II" status as she failed to reach a single slam final. In Australia, a back injury forced a QF walkover against #32-seed Fabiola Zuluaga, which was followed up by a pair of QF exits at the hands of eventual RU Elena Dementieva at both Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. At Wimbledon, Mauresmo put up a game fight in the SF, but still fell to Serena Williams. An Olympic Gold in Athens might have proven to be an agreeable substitute, but she came up short there, too, losing in the final to Justine Henin-Hardenne during the Belgian's brief, one-week conquering of the virus that struck down the last half of her season.

At the Tour Championships in L.A., Mauresmo went public with her "grand slam gambit." Swearing no desire to push for #1 (and no sorrow over failing to grab the honor during the season-closing event), she said she's set her sights squarely on a slam title in '05. In Melbourne. To further back up her assertion, she ducked out of her Fed Cup commitment a week later (to the consternation of French FC coach Guy Forget) and marked out her early Victory-in-Oz strategy: to rest, then train exclusively for the Australian Open, the only major with a long enough pre-event leadup for her to focus on being fully healthy, in form and focused on winning the final match in the women's event. The Australian, so early in the season and, in it's own unique way, so "remote" and disconnected from the rest of the WTA season, probably IS the site of Mauresmo's best shot at pulling off a slam title.

As Wimbledon was for the once famously slam-less Jana Novotna, Melbourne is for Mauresmo. Oz was where she had her first breakthrough success in reaching the final in '99. She's seemed to have become something of a crowd favorite down under ever since, and must be hoping that that fact could become a "secret weapon" if she finds herself in position to take the title on the final weekend this time around. It could happen, too. In 2005, last year's finalists will likely either be out (a Lleyton-less Clijsters) or out of form (a finally virus-free JHH). The Williams sisters have rarely found their rhythm early enough to be major factors (Venus has never won, and Serena only did so when completing the fourth leg of her "Serena Slam"). World #1 Davenport, though the '00 champ, has often wilted in the scorching conditions. An ultra-fit Mauresmo would seem likely to be poised to face off against the last standing Russian for the season's first major title.

Yes, Mauresmo's chances for Oz success DO look quite good... except when you realize that she's staking so much on winning there. She's never really performed at her best when saddled with such self-imposed pressure. Hence, that long-standing belief that she'll never claim Roland Garros in a Noah-esque jubilee. In years past, Mauresmo has been a leading force in championing France to Fed Cup success, but she'll have no official team cheering in her corner in Melbourne. It'll all be on her sturdy, yet fragile, shoulders. At one point, I WAS considering picking Mauresmo to finish 2005 at #1... and then she announced this "gambit." Her placement all the way down at #10 in the 2005 IQ list probably hints at what I'm predicting is going to happen next month.

Ironically, her plan actually made me think twice about her chances of success. Such is the weight of her (poor) grand slam history. It breeds skepticism. At this point, I think she'll get close, but ultimately come up short in Melbourne, losing in the final to a Russian. I've always felt that a Mauresmo slam title would come naturally (in the midst of a sterling stretch, such as the one she put together on the clay before last year's RG), or not at all. This now-is-the-time gamble is anything and everything BUT natural, and it'll be relegated to the dustbin of WTA history come February. Mauresmo's ability has never been in question. Her Aussie Plan is a good idea in theory, but maybe not the best one for her. As it is, there's only one positive outcome. Because of that, the odds of success are quite long.

Actually, Mauresmo might have a better shot at taking Wimbledon in 2005. Remember, if she'd managed to escape that wonderful SF match against Serena last season, Mauresmo would have faced Maria Sharapova in the final. The Amerussian team (0-1) has yet to defeat her. How ironic would it be if Mauresmo, like Novotna, would find her HOF credentials planted in the sod of Centre Court? Make no bones about it, the retired Czech would never have gotten her recent HOF nomination without her '98 Wimbledon title. Mauresmo is one BIG title away from rising to such an honor in her own right.

Her '99 Oz RU notwithstanding, Mauresmo's always been on something of a slower timetable than the tour's other top tier stars. As one of thirteen #1's since 1975, Mauresmo is the only one who didn't win a WTA singles title before she celebrated her 18th birthday. Her first title didn't come until she was 20, in Bratislava (1999). So, if failure does ultimately come in Melbourne, there would still be reason to hope success is lurking in the weeds somewhere down the line (remember, Novotna didn't win at SW19 until age 29).

But the tour's ever-expanding talent base is swiftly encroaching on her grand slam window of opportunity. 2005 could be her last chance. If it doesn't come this year, it might never come at all... and her bio would have to remain somewhat incomplete.

All for now.


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