Saturday, January 28, 2006

Oz Open Day 13: Amelie Clicks Her Heels

Who knew the 2006 ruby slippers would fit Amelie Mauresmo perfectly?

What's going on here? First Kim Clijsters wins a slam, then Mauresmo ends her career-long slam drought just four months later? A year ago, it seemed like neither would EVER win one, and now they BOTH have.

Who does Backspin have left to kick around? I thought Amelie was going to be a "safe" punching bag for quite a while longer. But, now -- poof! -- the target has been removed from her back courtesy of a 6-1/2-0 ret. win over Justine Henin-Hardenne in the Aussie Open final. For two weeks, I waited for Mauresmo to pick the "perfect" time to collapse, but it never happened. Pardon me for being a little "sad."

Seriously, though, Mauresmo WAS the smoothest player in Melbourne, even if she wasn't the flashiest over the past two weeks. She was such a "clean machine" this Australian Open, hardly making any errors per match, one is forced to wonder whether she sold her soul to the tennis gods before last November's year-end championships. This just isn't the Mauresmo we (and her opponents) have come to know and "love."

Apparently, the confidence Mauresmo gained from winning the YEC did indeed mean something, after all. Of course, having three of her seven opponents en route to her first slam title either fall victim to the heat (Michaella Krajicek), the court (Kim Clijsters), or a stomach (Henin-Hardenne) is bound to smooth out any of the rough edges the Frenchwoman might have had under pressure. The old wounds never had a chance to be re-opened, since the closest anyone came to knocking Mauresmo off stride was Tiantian Sun, who pushed her to three sets in the 1st Round.

How ironic a sight the final turned out to be. The normally shaky Mauresmo held her nerves (and her serve), again committed few errors (combined with just three winners in the 1st set), while it was JHH's guts that were rumbling, even if they weren't spilling out Sampras-style on the side of the court.

Henin-Hardenne's retirement due to an upset stomach, apparently brought on by taking double inflammatories for a shoulder ailment, was likely a foregone conclusion -- at least in JHH's mind -- before the match even began. In her postmatch comments, she said she had a bad night, nearly going to the doctor at 3 a.m., and feeling that she had little chance to win the match when it started. Normally, Le Petit Taureau is at her best under such circumstances (see the '03 U.S. Open, or the Athens Olympics), but not this time. Of course, had Mauresmo opened the door a tad to allow the Belgian to stick a foot in the match, maybe things would have been different. But, to her credit, Mauresmo didn't budge an iota, then watched one of the greatest fighters in the sport become just the fourth woman to EVER retire from a slam singles final (and the first in the Open era).

1902 U.S. - Marion Jones def. Elizabeth Moore 6-1/1-0
1933 U.S. - Helen Jacobs def. Helen Wills Moody 8-6/3-6/3-0
1965 Australian - Margaret Smith def. Maria Bueno 5-7/6-4/5-2
2006 Australian - Amelie Mauresmo def. Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-1/2-0

Maybe this was meant to be. I know I felt a tinge of "omen recognition" when I learned before the match that this was the first women's slam final matching two players with one-handed backhands since the 1998 Wimbledon final. That was when Jana Novotna met Nathalie Tauziat. Connecting the memory of an often weak-kneed Novotna ending her career-long slam drought that day to the often weak-kneed Mauresmo trying to do the same in Melbourne on Saturday was far too easy. Her 5-0 start to the opening set felt like an avalanche quickly picking up speed.

JHH's end turned out to come even quicker than ever imagined. A break to open the 2nd set, a call for the trainer, one more game lost... and the image of Henin-Hardenne making the long walk to the net to concede, then hanging her head while waiting for Mauresmo to meet her there.

And, thus, Mauresmo is NO LONGER the only women's #1 to NEVER win a slam title, and now there's been eight different slam champions in the last eight slams (that's TWO FULL YEARS with no player winning more than one). Her reaction to the end of her career-long battle was muted, considering the circumstances of her triumph. But the mixture of relief, concern (for Henin-Hardenne), and a good-natured sense of humor (during her acceptance speech) made the moment a warm one for everyone. Well, except for Henin-Hardenne, of course.

Seven years after she bounded onto the scene in Melbourne, reaching the AO final amid stories of coming out as a gay woman and catty comments (from the likes of Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport) about her muscular build and "man-like" shots, Mauresmo ends up having the last laugh. She's no Cinderalla story, having been around the block a time or two since she was that 19-year old unknown quantity in 1999, but, at 26, she's not quite Novotna, either. This probably isn't a career-capping achievement for Mauresmo, and it's certainly not one that will now precipitate her early exit from the game (Novotna played barely a year beyond her Wimbledon title before retiring at age 30).

She DID deserve a chance to fully experience victory at the end of Saturday's final, something which JHH's retirement "robbed" her of. But who's to say she won't get another shot at a "make-up" celebration in the coming months?

Did I REALLY just say that?

Something odd IS in the air. How else do you explain that as everyone picks up and leaves Melbourne until next year, we have absolutely no idea what to make of the 2006 season so far. Henin-Hardenne played great, but is sick again. Venus & Serena didn't, and probably wish they could blame it on a Henin-like ailment. Kim Clijsters is out for two months. Maria Sharapova is STILL losing big matches. Lindsay Davenport isn't even getting into them, and is no longer #1... but she'll still probably regain the top spot thanks to Clijsters' bum ankle. And, geez, AMELIE MAURESMO is now a grand slam champion... and, unlike Sharapova at Wimbledon, actually had phone service on the court after the match.

Weird. Weird. Weird.

If this is what 2006 has in store for us, we're in for a wild and crazy year. (Especially if Mauresmo has to make an early payment on that soul "deal.")

DOROTHY OF THE DAY: Amelie Mauresmo the end, it was difficult not to be charmed by finally-content Mauresmo. So, now the question will be who could extend this different-slam-champion streak to nine straight in Roland Garros? Mary Pierce, maybe? Elena Dementieva? The Russian is the only active player who's reached a slam singles final (two, actually), but hasn't yet won one. To look even farther ahead, how about Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon to make it ten different titlists in ten slams? Sounds far-fetched? Maybe. But if Mauresmo can be Dorothy...
SHEILA: Caroline Wozniacki
...the #1-seeded Girl defeated Ayumi Morita to reach the junior final.
GOBSMACKER: Sharon Fichman
...yes, a Canadian tennis champion. Wonders never cease. She won the junior doubles with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
AUNTIE EM: Amelie Mauresmo 26, she's the oldest first-time slam champ since 29-year old Novotna at Wimbledon in 1998.
MUCHKIN: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
...the Russian won the girls doubles title with Fichman, and defeated #2-seed Raluca Olaru in the SF to reach the singles final.
WALKABOUT: Justine Henin-Hardenne
...Backspin can't not give the Queen the benefit of the doubt on her retirement. Sure, it'd been nice for Mauresmo to have been given the opportunity to win the title (and fitfully celebrate the end of her long trek), but after JHH's past health problems with cytomegalovirus in 2004, I think she's earned the right to not push her body to the edge if she feels that she's not up to it.

==DAY 13 ODDS & ENDS==

#1 Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) vs. #8 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS)

#4 Sharon Fichman/Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova def. #8 Alize Cornet/Corinna Dentoni

51...Lindsay Davenport
40...Martina Hingis
33...Venus Williams
33...Conchita Martinez
30...Kim Clijsters
26...Serena Williams
24...Justine Henin-Hardenne

Margaret Smith-Court# - 1960 Australian
Billie Jean King# - 1967 Wimbledon
Evonne Goolagong# - 1971 Roland Garros
Chris Evert - 1974 Roland Garros
Martina Navratilova - 1978 Wimbledon
Tracy Austin - 1979 U.S.
Steffi Graf - 1987 Roland Garros
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario - 1989 Roland Garros
Monica Seles - 1990 Roland Garros
Martina Hingis - 1997 Australian
Lindsay Davenport - 1998 U.S.
Serena Williams - 1999 U.S.
Venus Williams - 2000 Wimbledon
Jennifer Capriati - 2001 Australian
Justine Henin-Hardenne - 2003 Roland Garros
Maria Sharapova - 2004 Wimbledon
Kim Clijsters - 2005 U.S.
Amelie Mauresmo - 2006 Australian
#--before computer rankings

All for now.


TOMORROW: "Dorothy Tour" Awards (& Week 5 Picks)


Blogger Noelle De Guzman said...

I found the torrent of press vitriol aimed at JHH after the final completely disgusting; I'm pleased that you're giving her the benefit of the doubt, as I'm sure no player would wilfully retire from a GS final match just to spite her opponent. :)

Sun Jan 29, 06:10:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Watching ESPN here in the U.S., I found it incredible that the commentators found time to take a shot at JHH during the Men's Final, but never bothered to bring up (that I heard, at least) the problems with the virus from less than two years ago, and at least wonder if what happened to her then has made her extra cautious as far as playing with something other than the normal injury (muscles, shoulders, etc.).

You'd think someone who's played so often -- and won -- while having injury problems (I remember so many wondering if she'd be able to play the 2003 US Final after her knock-down, drag-out SF battle with Capriati), would at least be able to catch half a break in an instance like this. Apparently not.

Sun Jan 29, 09:27:00 AM EST  
Blogger Zidane said...

You're talking of the surprise that a Canadian wins the Junior Doubles Title. Well, I'm Canadian, and it's not much a surprise to me, because Women's Canadian Tennis is improving recently. Fichman is only 15 and will probably be in the top 10 after her singles quarterfinals, which she lost really closely. If she had won it, she would have faced her doubles partner Pavlyuchenkova in semis. She will be Canada's future in WTA, probably future grand slam champion, and who know maybe #1. And you should watch for two Canadian players who will probably rise to the top 100 this year, Wosniack (who lost in the final round of qualifications at the Oz against her long-time nemesis Azarenka) and Dubois, who was injuried in January (quarterfinals at Bell Challenge, lost in three sets against Dechy).

Sun Jan 29, 11:16:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Ha. Yeah, that was sort of a tongue-in-cheek, friendly jab at Tennisrulz head honcho (and Canadian) Pierre Cantin. :)

It's really nice to see some young Canadians making a little noise. A long overdue occasion, really.

Sun Jan 29, 03:51:00 PM EST  

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