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1999 US Open

Mauresmo is finding her game

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Posted: Wednesday September 01, 1999 06:12 PM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

 
NEW YORK -- A year ago, Amelie Mauresmo was merely an up-and-coming French player, endowed with no-way-in-the-world shoulders and a bruising game. She took a set off Martina Hingis in the third round here, but otherwise didn't make much of a ripple in the tennis pond. Just another teenage upstart trying to ascend to ladder. "I was just playing tennis, improving, getting stronger," she says, as if straining to recall a distant era. "I had my privacy."

Her life was thrown irretrievably into the public domain in January when she muscled her way into the finals of the Australian Open. Her tennis was simply dominant, as she bludgeoned groundstrokes and beat opponents with names like Davenport. But it was her emergence from the closet -- and the firestorm of controversy that followed when Hingis imfamously called her "half a man" -- that placed her front and center on tennis' radar screen. Sylvie Bourdon, Mauresmo's partner, says that initially Mauresmo was thrilled by the media attention she generated in Australia. Then she realized how little of it focused on her tennis. Mauresmo second-guessed her decision to announce unabashedly that she was a lesbian -- one of many on the WTA Tour but one of the few to "out" herself. Eventually, she said recently, "I just thought [people who made insensitive remarks] were stupid and I knew I had done the right thing."

As much for her uncommon courage as her potent game, Mauresmo has almost a cult status with fans. She's yet to win a WTA Tour title, but her matches are well-attended and she gets as many rubber-neckers on the practice courts as any female player not named Williams. Unfortunately for Mauresmo, her parents are less accepting of her "lifestyle" than her legion of fans. After Mauresmo moved in with Bourdon, neither her parents nor her brother, Fabien, have spoken to her. "I'm not asking them to understand," she says. "I just want them to accept."

Since her double-barreled "coming out" in Australia, her tennis hasn't kept pace with her notoriety. She reached the finals of the Paris Indoor this spring, exacting revenge on Hingis in the process. (The French fans were so rabidly in Mauresmo's corner that Hingis likened the contest to a soccer match.) But after suffering a nagging ankle injury this summer, she played only four matches all summer and saw her ranking drop from 10 to 17. Her two-word description of the past few months: "Very frustrating."

The No. 15 seed, she arrived in Flushing with an ankle she describes as "perfect" and a cake draw. After mowing down Belgian Justin Henin in Round 1, Wednesday she banged out a methodical, three-set win against zaftig South African Mariaan De Swardt. Suddenly, she's on pace to meet Hingis for the fourth time this year in the quarterfinals. "I don't have that much pressure," she says, absentmindedly fiddling with the gold pendant around her neck that Bourdon gave her as a Christmas gift. "I have a pretty good draw, but the most important thing for me is to keep winning." If she does that, this may be the tournament when she finally becomes known more for her tennis than her sexuality. It's about time, anyway.

Open volleys

In addition to squandering his chance at smashing Roy Emerson's record for career Grand Slams, Pete Sampras also lost his top ranking when he pulled out Tuesday with a herniated disc in his back. Andre Agassi moves ahead of Sampras, but Yevgeny Kafelnikov could seize the brass ring if he makes the round of 16. Follow? If not, only three more months till the ATP Tour's points race commences. ... Get the feeling Alexandra Stevenson's 15 minutes are over? Showing all the mobility of a bridge abutment, she continued her losing ways Wednesday, falling to 31-year-old Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets. ... Pat Rafter's unfurling of the white flag was the lead story Tuesday night, but Cedric Pioline had plenty to do with the outcome. An endearingly streaky player who reached the final here in 1993, Pioline was Rafter's athletic equal and played two breathtaking sets of tennis. ... Far be it from us to tell Nike how to spend its boundless reserve of capital. But the shoe company's signing of American James Blake to a lucrative endorsement deal proved to be something other than a savvy investment this week. A wild card player who was on the Harvard team three months ago, Blake had his clock cleaned by American Chris Woodruff, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, in the first round of singles play. Wednesday he and his brother, Thomas, lost in the doubles to the estimable pair of Nuno Marques and Tom Van Houdt. ... Today's celebrity pick, Ricky Williams, New Orleans Saints running back: "Venus Williams. It's all in the name." Though Ricky Williams and Venus Williams share not only a name but also an agent -- Leland Hardy -- there's no truth to the rumor Venus will defer her U.S. Open prize money until she wins the title.

Jon Wertheim is a Sports Illustrated staff writer.

 
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