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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ineffective Mauresmo flatters to deceive

Photo Titled Amelie Mauresmo
Amelie Mauresmo

Former ladies' singles champion Amelie Mauresmo clawed her way into the second round, battling her own fading powers as much as opponent Melinda Czink to win 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.

The former No.2 court - still getting used to its new moniker of Court No.3 - looked as if it would retain its erstwhile “graveyard of champions” billing, but the French 17th seed, the title winner in 2006, rode her impeccable backhand and managed to fire down more aces than double faults to outlast the unheralded Hungarian.

It must be tough for someone who has won Grand Slams on different surfaces, bested the Williams sisters during the mid-2000s and spent a decade in the upper echelons of the game to be given the run-around by a 26-year-old journeywoman who is currently enjoying her highest ever ranking at a lowly 54th in the world.

But such is life for Mauresmo who has failed to reach the quarter-finals of a major since winning the Australia Open then Wimbledon in 2006.

Her one-handed backhand is still arguably the best in the game, particularly since her rival Justine Henin retired last year, but her serve is no longer the reliable weapon that it was and her forehand something of a lottery.

Whenever she seems to have turned a corner – winning the Open Gaz de France in Paris last February and securing three points to power France almost single-handedly past Slovakia in the Fed Cup in April – a setback inevitably follows.

She crashed out to Anna-Lena Groenefeld in the first round at Roland Garros, and came perilously close to repeating the feat here today.

The first set was Amelie at her vintage best. She dropped only two points on serve, won half a dozen points at the net with some crisp volleys and seized on her left-handed opponent’s hesitant service, clipping her trademark backhands at will in a 19-minute exhibition of grass-court tennis.

And then it all went awry. Czink served stronger and focused on Mauresmo’s forehand, and as the set began to spiral out of control, the Frenchwoman continued to rush to the net, ill advisedly on most occasions and letting the Hungarian pass her at will.

A brief rally saw Mauresmo claw a break back to 4-5, but Czink settled herself and served out to love to take it to a third set.

The decider was a battle of nerves, or more accurately of two nervous players. Double faults were served up – four on each side – and breaks were exchanged. The air turned blue as Mauresmo cursed her waning abilities as she sent forehands awry on a regular basis. Ultimately she had enough in the tank to hold serve one last time, and then concluded the match with a fine running cross-court flick at full stretch.

She herself will know only too well that the final point was mere window-dressing. Her quarter of the draw may have a dearth of grass-court specialists, but the 29-year-old will have to roll back the years if she is to prolong her stay in SW19 into a second week.

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