Friday, January 27, 2006

Mauresmo Wins Australian Open For First Career Slam, Henin-Hardenne Forced To Retire

It might not have come the way she expected but the monkey is finally off the back of Amelie Mauresmo. The third seeded Frenchwoman won her first ever career grand slam title in Melbourne when her opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne was forced to retire two games into the second set, resulting in a 6-1, 2-0 victory for Mauresmo before a stunned Rod Laver Arena crowd Saturday.

Playing in her second career final and first since losing to Martina Hingis in '99 at the same venue, the 26-year-old Mauresmo played brilliantly to get the better of her opponent.

Striking a cleaner ball in the first set, it didn't take long for Mauresmo to distinguish herself against the '04 Australian Open champion. After holding in the opening game, Mauresmo took advantage of a couple of Henin-Hardenne unforced errors to setup two break points on the Belgian's serve. During a rally in which Henin-Hardenne came to the net, a perfect topspin forehand lob produced an errant volley to break for 2-0.

With Henin-Hardenne continuing to struggle to find the range from the baseline, the steadier Mauresmo was able to keep the four-time slam winner off balance with deep groundstrokes and looping shots. Keeping the ball in during rallies, she let Henin-Hardenne self destruct. Henin-Hardenne committed 12 unforced errors while hitting just three winners in the set. Though Mauresmo had only three less miscues and the same amount of winners, she was much more consistent.

When a lethal Mauresmo backhand down the line forced another Henin-Hardenne forehand error, the Frenchwoman was in complete control with a double break 4-0 lead.

Henin-Hardenne tried to claw her way back in the match with a more inspired fifth game to try to get one of the breaks back. A backhand winner gave her a break point but Mauresmo denied the chance and then held for 5-0.

After Henin-Hardenne finally held for 1-5 to get on the board, with Mauresmo trying to serve the set out, she won the first two points. But on a day where Mauresmo was much sharper to win her first ever career major, the resilient Frenchwoman cameback to take the next four points to claim the first set 6-1.

In the 33-minute set, Mauresmo dominated by winning more than half the total points, taking 29 of 46. Another big difference was that Mauresmo converted both her break chances while she fought off Henin-Hardenne's only opportunity.

Mauresmo continued to take command in Henin-Hardenne's first service game of the second set. After three more Henin-Hardenne errors led to triple break point for Mauresmo, the 23-year-old eighth seeded Belgian saved the first two by coming to the net. But when she netted a forehand on the final one, she couldn't climb out of the hole, giving Mauresmo her third break of the match for a 1-0 lead. Mauresmo was three-of-five on break chances in the final.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the end would come on Mauresmo's serve in the next game. With Mauresmo a point from going up two games, the longest point of the match proved too much for her struggling opponent. During a 33-stroke rally in which both players scrambled from side to side creating angles with solid groundstrokes, an aggressive Henin-Hardenne forehand down the line finally forced Mauresmo to miss a forehand wide to get to Deuce. But once the point was over, Henin-Hardenne quickly notified the chair umpire that she needed the trainer for a problem.

After Mauresmo took the next two points to hold for 2-0, a brief injury timeout was granted for Henin-Hardenne. Complaining of chronic stomach pain, a trainer gave her some medicine to try to ease the discomfort.

However, when Henin-Hardenne returned and missed two more shots badly on her serve, she had had enough after 52 minutes. Mysteriously walking up to the net, a dejected Henin-Hardenne told Mauresmo she couldn't continue anymore. Ironically for Mauresmo, the same thing happened in her three set semifinal win over Kim Clijsters. But Clijsters retired down 3-2 after sustaining a torn ligament in her right ankle. Mauresmo also prevailed over Michaella Krajicek in the third round after taking the first set when Krajicek retired due to heat exhaustion.

Surprised by how she won her first slam, Mauresmo approached Henin-Hardenne and asked what the problem was. Told that Henin-Hardenne was suffering from extreme stomach pain, she wished for her opponent to get better and recover soon.

"Walking back to my chair, I realized the tournament was mine," Mauresmo said. "I guess the way I reacted would have been different if the match went to the end. But the joy is here. I've been waiting for this a long time."

It was only the second time in Australian Open history a champion won due to a retirement. This was the first time it happened since 1965 when Margaret Court Smith won the title in 1965 when Maria Bueno retired in the third set with an ankle injury. It also marked just the fourth retirement during a slam championship in women's history.

With both players emotional for very different reasons, Henin-Hardenne cried into a towel on her chair while the new champion Mauresmo had tears of joy and bowed to the crowd. She had been waiting her entire career for this moment.

Presented with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, Mauresmo smiled and lifted it to the fans, receiving a nice ovation.

Emotional during the courtside presentation, Mauresmo fittingly remarked, "It's been a very long time coming but I still don't know what to say," drawing laughter from the audience.

"All the people that still believed in me, after seven years, it's a long time. Not only myself, but people who're working with me, believed me and pushed me, even when I was down.

"Maybe we found the way, maybe we'll try to keep going," a happy champion said to more laughter.

"I was feeling so sick and I couldn't stay longer on the court," Henin-Hardenne said. "I'm feeling very disappointed to end the tournament this way. I'm sorry I couldn't find a little bit more."

During the postmatch conference, she also revealed that she had been taking an anti-inflammatory to battle shoulder pain the past two weeks.

Asked if she noticed anything wrong with Henin-Hardenne, Mauresmo said, "No. I wasn't paying attention. ... I was ready to die out there."

On this day, she wouldn't have to.

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