Ever since she came out, seven years ago, Amelie Mauresmo has endured jibes about her physique and sexuality – often from fellow players. But 2006 was her year, with victory at Wimbledon and in the Australian Open. Now the game’s most gifted player reveals how she learnt to cope with her emotions – and, finally, to win
Sunday November 26, 2006
Observer Sport Monthly
There’s a vulnerability to Amelie Mauresmo that is not often found in world-class tennis players. Some of this sensitivity dates back seven years to an event that happened off the court. She was 19 years old, ranked 29, and on a remarkable winning streak at the Australian Open. The tall, athletic young Frenchwoman had stunned the Melbourne crowd by overpowering the American Lindsay Davenport, the number-one seed, and was through to the final. Her first grand-slam final.It was the most thrilling week of Mauresmo’s career so far. It would also turn out to be one of the most difficult. After months of whispered speculation she announced, at a press conference, that she was gay and that her girlfriend at the time, Sylvie Bourdon, the owner of a bar in St Tropez, was on the tour with her. She was no longer simply a tennis player: she was a lesbian tennis player.
‘It was tough,’ she says now. ‘It was hard. I have never regretted the fact that I came out, but I do regret how I said it. It was too brutal. I could have done it in a much easier way. [Being gay] was no big deal for me. But I didn’t realise what a huge story it was going to be.’
She searches for the right English word and chooses a French one instead: maladresse, which means clumsiness. However, some might say that while she may have been naive it was her fellow players who were clumsy and even brutal.
Davenport, possibly in a fit of pique at having been knocked out, said playing Mauresmo was like ‘playing a guy’. (She later apologised, but the damage had already been done.) Not known for her friendly diplomacy, Martina Hingis pitched in. ‘She is half a man,’ she told the press. When she met Mauresmo in the final the words hung in the air. Hingis went on to win 6-2 6-3, although Mauresmo survived six championship points before she was finally beaten.
Some welcomed Mauresmo’s openness. Teenage girls wrote to thank her for helping them to come out. Martina Navratilova, whom she had never met and herself had waited until the best part of her career was over before coming out, sent a message of support. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin pointedly invited her and Bourdon to a high-profile International Women’s Day reception.
But not everyone was so positive. On the image-conscious women’s circuit, where there is a tacit agreement that lesbian players keep quiet, only one (secretly) gay player has ever thanked her for her candour.
Twelve months ago, apart from her sexuality, Mauresmo was famous mostly for two things: losing grand-slam tournaments that she should have won and her muscular physique. She had always won titles, to be sure, but until this year she had never won one of the four grand slams – one of the handful of players to reach the world number-one spot without having done so. She was the serial semi-finalist, the edgy, emotional one whose nerves would get the better of her. She’d choke on a baguette, they’d say behind the scenes. They wondered if she had the self-belief needed to win.
As for the snipes about her looks, women’s tennis has always had a narrow view of what is feminine. Blonde and girly pretty much sums it up. More so these days when dangly earrings and some cleavage seem to have become part of the unofficial dress code on court. Amazonian Mauresmo, unadorned and broad-shouldered and square-jawed, wearing her plain fluorescent sports kit, has never fitted the stereotypes.
Yet 2006 has been an incredible year for her. In a way she has been vindicated. At the relatively late age of 27, she topped the Sony Ericsson world rankings again and now her name is engraved on two bits of grand-slam silverware – the trophies for the Australian Open and Wimbledon – and she has a degree of acceptance she might never have thought possible. At the Australian Open final, in January, she missed out on playing championship point because her opponent, the Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, bowed out before the end with a stomach complaint. But when Mauresmo sank to her knees after beating the same Henin-Hardenne 2‑6 6‑3 6‑4 at the Wimbledon final in July, her joy was palpable. It was, I’m told, the only time anyone can remember journalists in the press box spontaneously breaking into applause. There was a sense that, of all the players, she was the one who deserved her moment hugging the Venus Rosewater Dish to her chest.
We meet at the Zurich Open in October. How does it feel, I wonder, finally to achieve her goals, 23 years after first picking up a tennis ball at the age of four? ‘Even this time last year I didn’t think it was going to happen to me,’ she says. ‘I was starting to think, “I’m never going to do this. I’m never going to win a grand slam”. It was really starting to prey on my mind. I waited such a long time to achieve these big goals. It’s exciting. It’s a huge joy. But it’s also a massive relief.’
In person, she is a good deal slighter than she seems on court. Her voice is soft; she’s all smiles and shrugs.
In a culture where nothing short of obsessive self-belief is seen as an embarrassing flaw, where the era of the sports psychologist means every negative is turned into a positive, she’s an anomaly. She doesn’t try to hide her flaws. ‘She’s an antidote to the way women’s tennis is going,’ says Andrew Castle, the former British number one who is now one of the BBC’s tennis commentators. ‘We need characters like her. There are too many faceless competitors, especially from eastern Europe. Why should anyone care whether they lose or not if we don’t know who they are? If there is no connection? We care about Amelie because we feel as if we know her.’
She is one of the finest athletes in tennis today. Her game is the most rounded on the tour. It is, perversely, also the most unpredictable, as changeable as an inclement day at the seaside. ‘I’m not a tennis machine,’ she says, with a smile. ‘I am not like those players who were taught to play one way and that is it. If they veer away they are lost. I try to adjust to who is in front of me. Most players don’t, you know?’
Most of her competitors rely on their power from the baseline. Mauresmo’s shots don’t have the same kind of rocket fuel that, say, former world number one Kim Clijsters has, or Maria Sharapova, the 19-year-old Russian who won the US Open this year and the 2004 Wimbledon title aged 17. But what she can do is play any stroke she chooses to.
‘Her game is beautiful to watch,’ says Annabel Croft, the player turned commentator. ‘It’s full of artistry and variety.’
There is subtlety to the way she plays, a mixture of impressive physical presence and delicacy. She can hit the ball with slice, top spin, flat on both sides. She has one of the few one-handed backhands in the women’s game and enjoys going to the net. She is quick around the court, too.
The very variety of her game has contributed to her downfall in the past (although it has also made her compelling to watch, because you never know what might happen). ‘It didn’t help me for a long time,’ Mauresmo says. ‘When you have a choice you have to make the right one. When you don’t have a choice you do what you know how to do best and that’s about it. When you have a repertoire – for this ball a chip down the line? Or a top spin short across the court? – there’s a chance that you’ll make the wrong decision.’
Alain Deflassieux from the French sports newspaper L’Equipe, who has known Mauresmo since she was a teenager, neatly sums up her contradictions. ‘It has been, more than anything, a struggle against herself,’ he says.
People have always said she thought too much. Unlike the ‘cookie-cutter’ tennis players, it was almost as if there was always a split second before she hit the ball when she would philosophise about it. But she also somehow felt too much as well. ‘I had trouble handling my emotions,’ she reflects. ‘I had too many feelings going round. The fear of winning, the fear of losing. I needed time as a person to deal with these emotions.’
‘It was always the same story,’ Deflassieux says. ‘She felt too much pressure, too much emotion. In the 2004 semi-final at Wimbledon against Serena Williams she was one set up and three games to one in the lead, and she still lost it. She’d blow her chances by losing her concentration.’
In the long run, coming out may have been less damaging than not doing so. There’s a strong sense about Mauresmo that she’s comfortable in her own skin. However, for a time, the exposure must have been distressing and hardly conducive to winning matches, particularly for someone whose emotions are never far from the surface.
‘For a year or two I didn’t play well because of it,’ she reflects now. ‘I was OK with my life but I found it hard to cope with the critical comments in the press and by people. The homophobic reaction. I didn’t understand it and I wasn’t ready for it. There was certainly a time when I was judged on more than my tennis. Definitely.’
Unlike Billie Jean King, who lost all her endorsements 24 hours after being outed in 1981, two years before she retired, and Martina Navratilova, who, it is said, designed her own tennis dress because she couldn’t find a sponsor to put their name to one, Mauresmo’s backers stuck with her. But her off-court earnings are nothing compared to those of Sharapova, who is straight, and blonde, and usually seeded below her.
She says she understands why more gay sportsmen and women don’t come out, even though the culture is more liberal than it was in the Seventies and Eighties. ‘I know how difficult it is. Now I am lucky that people just see me as a great player and a nice person. I think they have gone beyond this gay thing. But it is hard. I was judged. I was in the public eye and I had family issues which weren’t easy to handle.’
Alain Deflassieux tells me that she was estranged from her parents for some time after the announcement. ‘The sadness is that it was only a few months after they were reconciled that her father, Francis, fell ill.’ He died of cancer in 2003.
‘His death really changed me,’ she says. ‘You look back and realise that the priorities are the ones you love – family, friends. But on the other hand tennis helped me to get over it, to focus on something else. To survive the grief and get my life back. Some times were easier than others, but it made me grow up faster than anything else.’
It was the French Open final of 1983 that persuaded Amelie Mauresmo originally to play tennis. She was four years old and recalls watching Yannick Noah – still a hero of hers and now a close friend – beat Mats Wilander to become the first French winner of the men’s title for 37 years. She remembers vividly going into the garden afterwards and miming all the action. Her parents decided they’d better buy her a racket.
The middle-class, conventional family lived in St Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, where her father worked as a paint-factory engineer. Although she inherited her statuesque build from her father, neither of her parents were athletic. This was not a family life that revolved around tennis. However, she recalls ‘always wanting to run, to play soccer, to be on the move. That was something that was always inside me. Even now.’
By the time she was 11, Mauresmo had shown enough promise to be invited to attend a French Tennis Federation residential school. ‘Too young!’ she says. ‘Too early to leave home. I was just a kid. I’d be allowed home on a Saturday, by Sunday I was on my way back again. It was hard. I don’t think I would do it again.’
When she was 14 she wondered if she could bear to go on. Ambivalence is too strong a word for it, but there’s a sense that throughout her career she’s been aware that there’s a world outside tennis. ‘I remember saying to my parents that I didn’t want to do this any more. They respected my decision, but three weeks later I wanted to play again.’
While she always showed potential, she didn’t initially stand out. Deflassieux says: ‘She was not precocious. There was a bunch of great players from that ’79 generation, but she was not the best.’
Yet she won the Wimbledon and French Open junior titles at 17, even if, she accepts now, she still did not understand what it takes to thrive on the professional tour. At around the time that she must have been coming to terms with her sexuality, she rebelled. ‘I was going to bars and clubs, putting on weight. Not getting enough sleep and eating the wrong food. But then, suddenly, I realised that the tennis wasn’t going to happen if I carried on like this.’
Since then she has built up a reputation for working rigorously on her fitness. ‘She is a coach’s dream,’ Annabel Croft says. ‘She has learned to overcome a fragile quality in her character with sheer hard work, guts and determination.’
The hard work began to pay off for her and she started to win tournaments, inching her way up the rankings. In comparison to the rest of the top players, who have won grand-slam tournaments in their late teens and early twenties, she is a relatively late developer. After the Australian Open in 1999 it would be six years before she made it into the final of a grand-slam event again.
Mauresmo might have remained a perennial runner-up if she had not won the end-of-season WTA championship in Los Angeles last year. She was 26 at the time and it was the turning point. Winning was not as scary as it had seemed. ‘I’d had a poor few months. I was down, physically and mentally. I really didn’t know what to do. But I thought to myself, “Enough! Enough of seeing other players get their names on the big trophies”.’
Six months later, with the confidence of having won the Australian Open, she arrived at Wimbledon as the number-one seed. Most players are surrounded by an entourage, but Andrew Castle recalls seeing Mauresmo marching alone along the tree-lined streets of SW19. ‘She’s easy to spot – you can’t miss her. She has the most beautiful calves in tennis! She might not be classically beautiful, but she is thrilling to look at.’
She had dropped only one set during the tournament but then, on the morning of the final, she woke up exhausted. ‘I slept very badly. I almost didn’t sleep at all, which is very unlike me. And I was tight! Tense! You cannot imagine. I went down to breakfast and said to my coach, “We need to talk”.’
Her coach, Loic Courteau, whom she has worked with for four years – unlike some players she rarely changes her back-up team – has a reputation for being laid-back.
Just as well. At first it seemed as if Mauresmo’s jitters were going to get the better of her yet again. She lost her serve in the opening game and Henin-Hardenne won the first set convincingly. ‘The thing is that I didn’t panic. I can remember thinking, “You can do much better than this. She has been playing great but maybe she can’t keep it up”. I started that second set pretty strong and it carried me through the whole match.’ She lost only six points on her serve in the final set. ‘It felt as though something from within took over me. Serving for the championship – I just knew.’
She was the first Frenchwoman to win the singles at the All England Club since Suzanne Lenglen in 1925. The following day the French newspaper headlines read ‘Formidable Amelie’. (Twenty-four hours later it would be a different story for her compatriot Zinedine Zidane after the World Cup final.)
For sports fans, rapid success is always ‘prodigious’. But there is something rewarding and peculiarly life-affirming about the long, lonely slog, especially in tennis, which is such a solitary and unforgiving discipline. For Amelie, the relief that she talks about is evident. She may have battled with injury since the Wimbledon victory, but there are no more ‘what ifs’. She can return to her home in Geneva, and the current girlfriend whom she has learnt the hard way not to talk about too much, safe in the knowledge that she is a double grand-slam winner.
She wishes the season was shorter – ‘It’s too much! I get two weeks’ break a year. We are not machines, we are not robots’ – but there will be time enough to think about her vintage wine cellar and her Harley Davidson motorbike and her surfing when she retires. She thinks she will bow out of tennis in three or four years.
But for now, for once, this unusually reflective and complex champion is simply enjoying the moment. ‘It could have happened to me when I was 19 in the final in Australia. But it wouldn’t have been the same. I was not conscious at the time of what it takes. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing on the court. It makes the reward even greater now, I think. The pressure is off. When I see those last moments at Wimbledon again I feel great.’
Louise France, a former editor of The Observer Review, interviewed heptathlete Carolina Kluft for our August 2005 issue
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