PinkNews.co.uk’s Ben Leung hails a great season for a rising lesbian tennis star

At the start of the year, if you went into the bookies and asked for odds on Amelie Mauresmo winning a tennis Grand Slam, they could well have offered you anything between 50-1 to 1000-1.

Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but it wouldn’t have been that far-off from reality. For all her prodigious talents on court and gentle demeanour off it, no one seriously thought the Frenchwoman would ever win a major – that is to say, the Australian, French, US Opens and Wimbledon in 2006, or any other year for that matter.

Far too often, mental fragility got the better of her, as she capitulated under pressure. It is therefore a huge surprise that the former world number 1 should end the year with not one, but TWO Grand Slams to her name

Indeed in women’s tennis, 2006 has been dubbed ‘the Mauresmo year’. Twelve months which finally saw her ability being recognised, and years of hard work finally come to fruition.

The renaissance of Mauresmo began this time last year, with victory in the season-ending Championships in Los Angeles, also known as the ‘unofficial fifth major’. Prior to that, she had only one Grand Slam final appearance to show for – and that was way back in the 1999 Australian Open. So, despite amassing a fortune and the world number one spot in the interim period, Mauresmo was perennially stuck with the tag ‘best player never to win a slam’.

Some argue that is it unfair for a player’s career to be judged by the number of slam victories, and that would have irked a player of Mauresmo’s talent.

The victory in Los Angeles – a tournament which pitted the world’s top eight women players against each another – undoubtedly boosted her confidence ahead of the first major of the year at the Australian Open two months later. The 27-year-old’s path to the final at Melbourne Park was made somewhat easier by the retirements of two opponents though few expected her to beat Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne.

But a combination of fatigue and illness saw the young Belgian retire early in the second set – an unprecedented occurrence in modern tennis, but it also handed Mauresmo her first and a most unexpected win in a Grand Slam by default.

A sense of shock soon gave way to unbridled elation and tears of joy as the Frenchwoman celebrated a long overdue major triumph. However, despite following up with a solid spring campaign with a couple of titles and a return to the world number one ranking – her second stint since September 2004 – critics and tennis fans alike remained unconvinced by her ‘hollow’ victory at Melbourne. They, and probably Mauresmo too, knew that another slam victory was needed to win over the doubters.

Sadly, her usual capitulation at her home slam – the French Open at Roland Garros – did little to allay the criticisms over her mental strength. Carrying the weight of a nation, Mauresmo once again fell well-short of her capability by bowing out in the fourth-round, despite being seeded number one. Critics were quick to point out that in twelve visits to the main draw at Roland Garros, she had never been beyond the quarter-finals. Her triumph at Melbourne seemed less legitimate than ever.

A poor show on the grass at Eastbourne meant little was expected from the Mauresmo at Wimbledon. Despite another top-seeding, her previous efforts at the All England Club – including three defeats in the semi-finals when nerves got the better of her in two of those matches – meant she was sent off an unfancied 12-1 shot to secure the ladies’ title – unheard of for a number one seed.

For once though, Mauresmo was having none of it. She marched into semi-finals, where she gamely defeated former champion Maria Sharapova to make her first Wimbledon ladies’ final, where she would once again face-off with Justine Henin-Hardenne, who three weeks earlier, had taken the Roland Garros crown.

For a good half-hour, it looked as though history would repeat itself as nerves wreaked havoc with the Mauresmo serve, allowing her Belgian opponent to take the first set easily in 31 minutes.

But then, the gritty determination which had been evident in her win against Sharapova in the previous round began to surface. A series of brilliant volleys, coupled with an ever-increasing tally of unforced error by the young Belgian opponent soon saw the match level at one-set all.

The most telling sign of Mauresmo’s new-found vigour and renewed confidence was her fist-pump and skip mid-way through that second set, and despite a tenacious fight-back by the young Belgian, it was Mauresmo’s day as she went on to win 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, and with that, her first ‘legitimate’ Grand Slam victory.

Courage, undoubtedly got her through the day. Tennis, probably more than any other sport, relies heavily on psychology. What her ‘hollow’ victory at Melbourne did was to restore the belief in herself. Obviously, she never saw that as a hollow win, but it was enough to help her combat the mental frailty which had held her career back for so long.

It is striking that her immediate reaction to winning Wimbledon was that she didn’t want anyone to ‘talk about her nerves anymore’. Five words which answered her critics, and with that, got the monkey off her back.

The year may not have ended spectacularly for the likeable Frenchwoman with injuries, as well as Sharapova and Henin-Hardenne avenging their defeats in the US Open and season-ending Championships respectively.

But Mauresmo can look back on this career-defining season with pride, secured in the knowledge that whatever happens now, no one can deny her place amongst the tennis greats.