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Alan McGee on “Why I Hate Robbie Williams” December 8, 2006

Filed under: Uncategorized — ayrcampusjournalism @ 12:38 am

from the Guardian, 27 November 

Robbie Williams is not a “British hero”, as a BBC-sponsored vote once incredibly claimed. He’s not even an “all-round entertainer”. As Noel Gallagher famously said, he’s an all round crap dancer who can’t sing too well either. He truly is the new Cliff Richard for our generation, and who in their right mind wants one of them?

He was rubbish in Take That, and they were an atrocity of a band – God help us now they’re back. Yet solo, he’s even worse than they are! No wonder the Yanks don’t want him no matter how much money the CEO of EMI throws at it. They were almost giving the last CD away for free in the States and still nobody bought one.

I actually despair when people who know about music credit him with substance, or mention him in the same breath as Michael Jackson or Elton John. These people are brilliant, world class musical talents. Robbie’s just a showbiz chancer. I remember him hanging around the Oasis caravan at Glastonbury in 1995. Unfortunately, he never really went away after that in our lives.

To me, Robbie Williams is a crime against music. It’s people like him who are destroying British pop culture. He has 1% of Mick Jagger’s talent. He’s the post-9/11 feelgood factor. He doesn’t mean anything – he’s utterly vacant. If Robbie Williams is what sells then give me any unsigned band in a garage any day of the week. At least they’ll love music. Robbie Williams is music for people who don’t feel – or the payment on the mortgage, if you work for EMI.

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Charlie Brooker’s Screen Burn December 7, 2006

Filed under: Uncategorized — ayrcampusjournalism @ 3:00 pm

from The Guardian, 25 November 2006.

OK. That’s it. I’ve never been a patriot, because nationalist pride is clearly the pastime of choice for furious thimble-minded morons so thoroughly inadequate they need to leech off the history and status of an entire nation to bolster their own self-worth.

But all that’s changed in the face of a sustained, maddening dose of the MacDonald Brothers, courtesy of The X Factor (Sat, 6.25pm, ITV1). Suddenly, I’m declaring myself 100% English and demanding all out war with Scotland.

Yes, Scottish readers, I’m sorry to tar you all with the same brush, and even sorrier to call for your heads on a silver platter – which, make no mistake, is precisely what I AM doing – but I’m confused and I’m angry and you’re the only easily-identifiable group I can blame. This weekly atrocity cannot be allowed to continue. It’s time for the Scottish community to stop making excuses and start policing itself; time to root out the extremists hell-bent on voting MacDonald and confront their twisted ideology head-on.

The extremists claim that by voting MacDonald they’re simply doing their bit for Scotland. Yet their actions have caused misery and suffering for millions.

Imagine a world in which the MacDonald Brothers have won the X-Factor. Gigantic billboards carrying their image dominate the skyline as a terrified populace scurries past. An anodyne MacDonald cover version of Unchained Melody blares from a million speakers, drowning out the screams of men and dying children. Insane and unthinkable as it sounds, the extremists want to make this nightmare vision of the future a reality. We must stop them at all costs.

In return for the Scots co-operation, the rest of us can set about tackling anyone who votes for Ray (pictured), preferably by cutting their voting fingers off with pliers. Ray, a pirouetting kiddy vampire with a demented penchant for the big band sound, is even worse than the MacDonalds.

When Ray sings, music itself throws up. Not just a bit, like when you unexpectedly bring up half a gobful of baby sick and have to swallow it back down, but a lot. When Ray sings, music buckles in two, swings its jaws open and unleashes an unprecedented jet of acrid vomit. And it doesn’t stop vomiting until strips of stomach lining are hanging off its teeth and it’s spat its own ringpiece out, like a hot rubber coin.

That’s what Ray does to music. This is the worst X-Factor lineup ever.

Meanwhile, I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here (Sat, 9.20pm, ITV1; Mon-Wed, Fri, 9pm; Thu 8pm) trundles unstoppably on. Having spent a large portion of last week’s column picking on David Gest, I’ve now warmed to him, just like the rest of the viewing public. Facially, he still resembles a cross between Paul Simon and the outermost fringe of madness, but inside lurks an endearingly dry sense of humour. Clearly he should win.

In other news, according to both the tabloids and the programme itself, Dean Gaffney’s inaugural Bushtucker trial was the single funniest event in recorded history. But it could’ve been far funnier. After all, he was on live television. He missed a golden opportunity.

If I was doing it instead of Gaffney, I’d have waited until the bit where they put me in the big wooden box thing, then deliberately stamped on a rat’s head at the earliest opportunity. I’d crunch my heel around in its skull, pick its twitching carcass up by the tail and swing it in Ant and Dec’s faces, shrieking “LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO! THIS PRODUCTION HAS BLOOD ON ITS HANDS! MURDERERS! MURDERERS!” at the top of my lungs.

And before they could respond I’d start sobbing and fighting the pair of them, mussing up their hair and getting rat blood all over their shirts. And then I’d whip down my trousers and unleash a curler, right there on the jungle floor.

And I’d sit there poking it with sticks and rubbing leaves on it and giggling. Although I guess they’d probably cut to a commercial by then.


Julie Burchill on John Lennon

Filed under: Uncategorized — ayrcampusjournalism @ 2:58 pm

 from The Guardian, 9 December 2000

I don’t normally feel the need to return to the scene of a hate-crime – once I’ve dissed ’em, they stay dissed – but in John Lennon’s case, I will make an exception. John Lennon! Even his name makes me feel nauseous. Was one human being, with the possible exception of Jeffrey Archer, ever such an all-weather compendium of lies, boasts and eye-watering phoniness? It’s actually quite hard to think of a person you can’t stand one damned thing about – even Jeffrey Archer’s good for a cheap laugh – but Lennon takes the booby prize every time.

I would have let the old geezer rest in pieces if there hadn’t been this recent flurry of sentimental activity around his remains. The Beatles Anthology book comes out and cretins queue all night for it. That album gets to number one. George Michael, whose once-sharp brain must surely have been well bleached by the bright brazen sun of La-La Land, buys Lennon’s piano partly “to keep it out of tiny hands in Tokyo” and partly because Imagine was – ahem – the greatest song ever written, casting a giant shadow over today’s bonsai bands. Liam Gallagher, Mr Brains Trust himself, names his kiddie after his all-time hero, while, in a Putative Project of truly sumptuous grotesquerie, plans for Yoko Ono and Michael Jackson to bring a Yellow Submarine musical to the West End stage in 2002 are announced.

To cap it all, any swot lucky enough to be blessed with BBC Choice can tonight experience “an evening of programmes dedicated to one of the greatest singer-songwriters and one of the most influential political artists of modern times”. Yes, be still my beating heart as the Professional Widow introduces such toe-tapping classics as Instant Karma, Power To The People and No9 Dream (bet you can’t whistle that one). There’s also an ass-sucking documentary, Gimme Some Truth, in which (according to a reverent BBC press release) “an American fan turns up on Lennon’s doorstep saying that he needs to talk to him because he believes that Lennon’s lyrics were written specifically for him. He is invited into the house for something to eat.” For some reason, this piece of writing made me hoot with laughter, so I just wanted to share it with you. And, as the cherry top, there’s a long, lingering look at the “Lennon Shrine” in New York’s Central Park, containing interviews with “the thousands of people who make a pilgrimage to the shrine on the anniversary of his death”. And every one of them nuttier than his killer Mark Chapman, I’ll be bound.

Lennon; what a phoney! For a start – working-class hero? My arse. The Marianne Faithfull cover version was more heartfelt! Lennon was about as working class as a Wilmslow dentist, unlike Paul, George, and Ringo. That’s why the tosser was at art school in the early 50s, for Pete’s sake! (And, on the subject of Petes, who was it insisted that the original Beatles drummer, Pete Best, be sacked because he was too good-looking and all the girls screamed at him? Right first time.)

Someone once said that pop stars must be either sexy or profound; when you get the pair, you’ve hit the jackpot. Lennon was neither. Imagine’s lyrics could have come out of a stoned fortune cookie or maudlin Christmas cracker, and generally appeals to vicious go-getters who’d sell their best pet to a torture lab if the price was right. But more seriously, he wasn’t sexy in the least – he was hideous, even when young. Those piggy little eyes, that thin, curtain-twitching little mouth, the voice a tight whine of ill-temper – ugh! If he was anything like as unattractive, whiny and boring as a child as he was as an adult, I’m not surprised his mother – Julia, by all accounts an attractive, intelligent, high-spirited woman who must have felt she’d given birth to a switched baby – ran away and left him with his Aunt Mimi. (See that early giveaway as to his manicured roots, by the way; working-class people never refer to their mother’s sister as “Aunt”; she is invariably “Auntie”.)

The young adult Lennon was an appealing chap, too: this is the man, remember, who, in front of a packed dressing room, shouted “QUEER JEW” in response to Brian Epstein fussing, “Now what shall I call this autobiography of mine?” He was crap during the Beatles – everyone knows that Paul wrote 99% of all the decent songs – and crap after the Beatles. He was always the weakest link. I’ll take the spirit and soul of Ringo’s Back Off Boogaloo and It Don’t Come Easy over the smug platitudes of Woman or Starting Over, any day.

Ah, the Yoko years! Move over Romeo and Juliet, Dante and Beatrice and Jimmy and Janette Krankie, and let this pair of lovers show you how it’s really done! In reality, of course, their alliance was a fetid mess of domestic violence, drug addiction and mutual adultery – hey, if I’d wanted that, I could have got it at home. After the initial provincial excitement of copping off with a “Jap”, as Lennon so frequently referred to his lady love, I think it fair to say that there wasn’t even a great deal of physical attraction – on either side, and who can blame either one after seeing that album cover? (“Couldn’t Paul and Linda strip off instead?” said the sweet, vague Sir Joe Lockwood, head of EMI at the time Two Virgins was released. “They’re so much prettier .”) “I don’t believe in Beatles – the dream is over,” Lennon once sang. “I just believe in me – Yoko and me.” I’d bet any money that the Yoko Dream turned out to be emptier and phonier than the Beatles Dream. But when Lennon wanted to turn back, he was too afraid of losing face. Instead, he swaddled himself in (“Imagine no . . .”) possessions; at the height of their swinishness, the Ono-Lennons kept a whole apartment in the Dakota building, just below the one they lived in, for the exclusive occupation of their fur coats – just to keep them at the right temperature. Forget sex and drugs; that’s probably the most decadent, vile pop star antic I’ve ever come across in my life.

Yet still the legend lives. But that doesn’t make it legit. Lennon famously got into trouble for saying in the 60s that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus” – pathetically, he also apologised when this statement threatened to damage their sales in the God-bothering US South. And, of course, it was a ridiculous thing to say – for a start, Jesus had better songs and he didn’t go about calling people “Queer Jews”. A far better comparison would be with the Queen Mother, about whom it is equally impossible to imagine the BBC ever making even a slightly critical programme. In the long run, I think that’s what John Lennon will turn out to be: a Queen Mum body double, a dry run for the big one – the man who united one nation under a vale of tears.


Robert Altman – Daily Telegraph 23 Nov 2006 November 28, 2006

Filed under: Uncategorized — ayrcampusjournalism @ 7:57 pm
  Robert Altman

Robert Altman, who died on Monday aged 81, was a film-maker renowned for experimentation and innovation.

He had an uncanny ability to recover from critical and box-office disasters, staging a comeback four times — with M*A*S*H in 1970, Nashville in 1975, The Player in 1992 and Gosford Park in 2001 — after years in the doldrums. In an industry in which a succession of flops can make a director unemployable, Altman was famously prolific. As each film appeared, he was usually shooting another and in pre-production on a third. He dabbled in many genres — Westerns, science fiction, comedy, psychological drama — but was especially drawn to what might be termed kaleidoscopic movies, in which a huge number of characters and sub-plots interact to form a composite picture of a particular setting or moment in time. Nashville, set in the capital of Country and Western music, had 24 leading roles, Short Cuts (1993) even more. A Wedding (1978), Health (1979) and Prêt-à-Porter (1995), about the rag trade, were in the same mould.

His trademark, developed out of pioneering work by Orson Welles, was the use of multiple soundtracks and overlapping dialogue. With an 8-track sound system and microphones all over the set, he was able to pick up several unrelated conversations taking place simultaneously and to mix them at will. It was a remarkable, if controversial, advance in realism, though some found the effect disorientating.

Altman regarded screenplays as blueprints and often invited actors to improvise dialogue. In Nashville, they were also encouraged to write their own songs. This approach was not universally welcomed. On the set of M*A*S*H, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould were so disconcerted by what they considered confusion that they tried to have him fired.

His skills were primarily those of a metteur en scène. He had a recognisable signature (even a bad Altman film was distinctive). But only twice — in Nashville and Short Cuts — did he find a script in which the theme transcended the material. In the former, in which a large number of characters converge on Tennessee on the eve of the American centennial and tragedy leads to a new beginning, the plot seemed to stand for more than itself, pointing to the possibility of national renewal. Short Cuts, based on a collection of Raymond Carver short stories interwoven into a connected narrative, achieved a similar quality. These were the closest he came to being an auteur as French critics understood the term.



The son of an insurance broker, Robert Bernard Altman was born in Kansas City on February 20 1925. He was of English-Irish-German extraction and as a Catholic (later lapsed) was educated in Jesuit schools. The family name had originally been Altmann, but his grandfather dropped the second “n” when he opened a jewellery store and was told that the signboard would cost less if it was only six letters.

Enlisting in the armed forces at 18, Altman served as a pilot during the war and flew on more than 50 bombing raids over the East Indies. Later, he admitted that he never thought about those he killed and doubted whether it would have bothered him if he had.

After studying Engineering at the University of Missouri, he was engaged in a number of entrepreneurial ventures, including marketing a device for tattooing animals. The company went bankrupt, but not before Altman had travelled to Washington to tattoo President Truman’s dog.

With a friend, George W George, he wrote a script that was sold to RKO and became Richard Fleischer’s 1948 film The Bodyguard, but attempts to follow it up were unsuccessful. For a number of years, Altman made industrial films for the Calvin Company and International Harvester — 65 in all. His first feature film was The Delinquents, shot in 1955 with help from a local backer and released through United Artists two years later. A tale of teenage rebellion, it grossed nearly $l million.

Temporarily it made Altman a hot property, with the clout to film what he pleased. He chose a documentary, The James Dean Story (1957), but it offered no fresh slant on the actor’s short life and was a commercial failure. It might have wrecked Altman’s career, but Alfred Hitchcock liked it and hired him to direct on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents series for CBS Television.

Altman remained in television for a decade, learning to work fast and efficiently to tight schedules and limited budgets. In 1966 he re-entered the Hollywood mainstream with a low-budget film for Warner Bros about space flight, starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. Called Countdown (1968), it underwent extensive revision because the studio boss, Jack Warner, could not understand the overlapping dialogue. Some 30 minutes were cut, including all the scenes in which two or more characters were speaking simultaneously.

A modest psychological thriller set in Vancouver, That Cold Day in the Park (1969), was followed by Altman’s first big hit — M*A*S*H (1970), an acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Set during the Korean war, it was an episodic black comedy about surgeons operating in atrocious conditions close to the front line. The lyrics for the theme tune, Suicide Is Painless, were written by Altman’s 14-year-old son Michael. The film won the Golden Palm at Cannes and earned $30 million in its first year of release. Altman had no connection, however, with the TV series spun off from it.

Once again he had carte blanche. And once again he squandered the moment by settling for small personal productions made for his own Lion’s Gate company. None of his films of the early 1970s was successful. They included Brewster McCloud (1970), a fantasy about a young man who attempts to fly with the aid of mechanical wings; McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), a mournful Western with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie; and The Long Goodbye (1973), with Elliott Gould as a sloppy, unheroic version of Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe. All three rapidly disappeared from cinemas.

Other films of this period were Images (1972), a pretentious psychological thriller set in Ireland; Thieves Like Us (1974), a version of Edward Anderson’s novel of love on the run during the Depression; and California Split (1974), a comedy-drama about gambling that tapped a compulsive strain in Altman’s own character, inherited from his father.

Nashville (1975), his first masterpiece, was a hit when he needed it most and secured him a three-picture deal with the producer Dino De Laurentiis. With customary recklessness, he threw away this opportunity, too. Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), based loosely on a play by Arthur Kopit, debunked the legend of Buffalo Bill and contrived to make Paul Newman look foolish in the leading role. De Laurentiis recut the film for distribution in Germany and when, surprisingly, it won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, Altman declined the award on the ground that it was no longer his work.

The De Laurentiis contract was dissolved and Altman switched to making small pictures such as Three Women (1977), the idea for which allegedly came to him in a dream while his wife was awaiting surgery; Quintet (1979), a sci-fi movie set in a future ice age; and A Perfect Couple (1979), a modest romantic story about an unprepossessing couple who meet via a computer dating service. Through Lion’s Gate, Altman also fostered the careers of several protégés, including Alan Rudolph with Welcome to LA (1976) and Robert Benton with The Late Show (1977). The studio was eventually sold in 1981 for $2.3 million.

On his own account, Altman made two more pictures in the Nashville vein but without that film’s ability to rise above its ostensible subject. A Wedding (1978) was a brilliantly organised account of a big society wedding and Health (1980) a study of slightly loopy delegates to a health food convention in Florida. The latter was little seen because the top management at 20th Century Fox changed and the incoming team dumped it to discredit their predecessors.

With Popeye (1980), Altman changed tack. A musical based on the cartoon character, it starred Robin Williams in the title role and Shelley Duvall as his inamorata, Olive Oyl. Yet the public did not respond, and for much of the 1980s Altman was reduced to shooting inexpensive adaptations of stage hits, such as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Streamers (1983), Secret Honor (1984), the Sam Shepard play Fool for Love (1986) and Beyond Therapy (1987).

He also worked extensively in television, for which he made versions of The Dumb Waiter by Pinter (1987), The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1987) and a much admired political series, Tanner ’88, which he judged to contain some of his best work. All in all, however, it was a lean decade for Robert Altman, marked by scant critical or popular approval. Few, for example, liked his “youth” picture OC & Stiggs (1987) and nobody’s career benefited from working on Aria (1987), a portmanteau picture in which celebrated directors were invited to illustrate an aria from their favourite opera. Altman chose Rameau’s Les Boréades.

Just when he seemed a spent force, Altman’s luck turned again. A decent, if dull, account of the life of Van Gogh — Vincent and Theo (1990), made in two versions for film and television — was capped by a return to form with The Player (1992), a satire on movie-making with Tim Robbins and 66 cameo performances from Hollywood superstars, ranging from Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts to Andie MacDowell and Whoopi Goldberg.

Jet black in tone, malicious in intent (thanks to a superb script by Michael Tolkin), it was a formidable stylistic achievement. The opening sequence, introducing nearly all the cast in a single 10-minute take, with the camera prowling in and out among a variety of incidents, was a tour de force as brilliant as anything Altman had done since Nashville.

Its successor, Short Cuts (1993), was even better and one of his finest works — a 1990s portrait of America as resonant as Nashville had been in the 1970s. An attempt to repeat the formula with Prêt-à-Porter (1995), however, was a disaster. Like Short Cuts, it boasted an enormous cast, including Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Julia Roberts and Lauren Bacall, but it fell into the trap of being banal by depicting banality. In America the title was deemed too highfalutin and changed to Ready to Wear.

Altman went back to his roots with Kansas City (1996), a dramatic evocation of the 1930s, when his home town was the Mecca of jazz, and a documentary, Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34. Several flops followed: The Gingerbread Man in 1998, Cookie’s Fortune the following year and 2000’s Dr T and the Women, before Altman made his greatest comeback with Gosford Park.

A classic English country house murder mystery, it was also an acute observation of social class and featured an outstanding cast, including Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. Altman received his fifth Oscar nomination as best director, and the film picked up six further nominations, winning the best original screenplay award.

His last film was A Prairie Home Companion, with Garrison Keillor, which came out in May this year. Earlier in the year, he had received a lifetime achievement Oscar.

Robert Altman was married three times: first (1947-49) to Lavonne Elmer, by whom he had a daughter; second (1950-55) to Lotus Corelli, the mother of two sons; and third (from 1957) to Kathryn Reed, by whom he had another son. A further son was adopted.


Amelie Mauresmo – The Observer, 26 Nov 2006

Filed under: Uncategorized — ayrcampusjournalism @ 7:55 pm

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

Louise France
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

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006


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