Thursday, October 20, 2005

2005 Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way...

Back before this season began, every player on tour had high hopes that 2005 would provide the answers to all their questions. By today's date they hoped to have accomplished their goals, set new ones and experienced the joy of "walking on air."

Some players got what they wanted (Kim, it's not time for you yet... you'll have to wait your turn. Sheesh! She wins a slam and she thinks she can cut in line.). Some didn't by a long shot (Jelena, you'll have to wait, too). Others, like the subject of what was 2005's Intriguing Question #10, found that the nearly-completed season left their career pretty well treading water... yet again.

Amelie "Albie" Mauresmo entered this season as an underachiever. She leaves it as one, too. But wasn't 2005 supposed to be different? After all, the Frenchwoman ended her '04 campaign by announcing at the WTA Championships that she'd forgo her Fed Cup participation in order to stay healthy and focus on winning her long-overdue first career slam title at the Australian Open. Considering her past FC success (leading France to the title in 2003), it was a "grand slam gambit" worthy of note for a player one big title away from salting away a career with "Hall of Fame potential." It also put a great deal of self-imposed pressure on her to get it done... and everyone knows how well Mauresmo has handled pressure throughout her career.

Yep, you guessed it. The "gambit" was another in the long line of abject failures on the slam level for Mauresmo. As it turned out, Mauresmo still managed to have her body let her down (with a groin injury) as she went out meekly in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Serena Williams. She bailed out of Roland Garros even earlier (3rd Round), before finding more success at Wimbledon (SF, at the hands of Lindsay Davenport) and the U.S. Open (QF, losing to Mary Pierce).

By the time the slam season was over, Mauresmo seemed to have come to the same conclusion that the "Backspin IQ #10" column posed as a possibility back in December -- that Wimbledon, even with so many of the other top players annually finding their grooves there, might ultimately offer her the best opportunity to get a slam crown before her career comes to a close. Mauresmo's game, after all, has grown stronger over the years on the grass as she's fused her athletic prowess with an improving net game to create a style of play built for success at the All-England Club. Winning Wimbledon might be a long shot, but it could be the best shot Mauresmo has.

Remember, similar edge-of-the-Hall candidate Jana Novotna filled out her career resume with a late career title at Wimbledon, making her 2005 induction at Newport possible. Novotna was 29 when she won SW19 in 1998. Mauresmo, the only #1-ranked women to have never won a slam title, will turn 27 in 2006. Time is running out.

**MAURESMO vs. CURRENT/FORMER #1's in 2005**

Subtracting her slam troubles, Mauresmo's 2005 season, while not as great as her career-best '04 campaign, was a "good, but not great" one. She won two titles, including Tier I Rome, and reached five finals. She's currently #4 in the world (even while Mary Pierce challenges her for the top French ranking), and she returned to the French Fed Cup team to lead the Pastries to a RU finish against the Russians. Currently, though, she's limping to the 2005 finish line with a string of early-round defeats (the result of a long season that began with so much pressure to perform?), and still has to defend titles in Linz and Philadelphia.

But, no matter what happens in the final weeks of this season, as was the case with Kim Clijsters before September, Mauresmo's career won't be judged by her career titles (17), Fed Cup championships (1) or weeks at #1 (5). It'll be the number of slams that'll separate her from the pack of "Tier II" champions she finds herself in. And "zero" ain't gonna cut it.

At the moment, the slam albatross (hence, "Albie") has taken up a cozy residence on Mauresmo's shoulder. She just doesn't measure up as anything more than simply a "good" player after so much "on-paper success" since she burst onto the scene by reaching the '99 Australian Open final. She's a career underachiever with flair, and a fragile mind under pressure. It's not exactly a description that's unique amongst most other French players over the past eight decades or so (save for the occasional anomaly of a Yannick Noah, or the pick-your-nationality case of Pierce). One big title, though, and that assessment will change in a hurry. But will it ever come?

Well, I guess there's always 2006.

(Hmmm, I wonder what "gambit" Albie will propose at this year's WTA Championships? Backspin will surely be keeping an ear to the ground in a few weeks... just in case.)


Next week's 2005 review: Wonder Girl and the Debutante go on wildly divergent paths.

All for now.


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