For Amelie Mauresmo, the questioning today was almost routine: How much self-confidence did she get from her victory at the WTA Championships in November in Los Angeles?
Technically, how was the Frenchwoman's game different from when she lost to Martina Hingis in the final here in 1999? And would she be playing cards to relax the night before her Australian Open final against Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium?
This time, routine was a relief.
There were no TV crews hounding her, no fellow players making inappropriate remarks about her personal life. Mauresmo's first experience under the harsh glare of the spotlight came in Melbourne in 1999 at age 19, when she upset then-No. 1 Lindsay Davenport to reach the final.
A deer in headlights was more like it.
A firestorm was unleashed before the final when Mauresmo, whose girlfriend was at the tournament, was referred to by Hingis as "half a man." The treatment of Mauresmo and her girlfriend in certain media quarters, and by Hingis, represented a sorry episode in the sport.
Mauresmo was asked to recall the 1999 final. "I don't think I was ready really to go through these kind of experiences at the time," she said.
But it has been clear the memory of Hingis' words still stung, all these years later.
"It is something I will remember all my life because it hurt so much," Mauresmo told the Sunday Times of London in an interview conducted before the tournament. "People ask me if I can laugh about it now. It is something I would never connect with laughter."
The emphasis on Mauresmo's muscular physique was extreme back then, but now it's almost laughable, considering the height and muscular frames of veterans and teenagers populating the top 20.
"They're probably taller than me, most of them," Mauresmo, listed at 5 feet 9 and 152 pounds, said after beating a powerful 16-year-old, Nicole Vaidisova, in the fourth round here. "When you look at the top 10, I think I'm one of the smallest now."
She was reminded of the 5-5 3/4 , 126-pound Henin-Hardenne and agreed. And now, days later, the two "smallest" of the top 10, relatively speaking, will be contending for one of the sport's biggest prizes. Mauresmo, seeded third, reached the final with a 5-7, 6-2, 3-2 (retired) victory over Kim Clijsters of Belgium; No. 8 Henin-Hardenne defeated Maria Sharapova of Russia, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, in her semifinal.
Henin-Hardenne, who has defeated Mauresmo four times in seven matches, has won here before, in 2004, and is aiming for her fifth Grand Slam singles title.
Henin-Hardenne has battled physical problems the last couple of years, and has had to change her training regimen, opting for smarter rather than harder and longer. She won in Sydney before arriving in Melbourne and said she was feeling her best in the last two years.
Mauresmo is considered the best player without a Slam title. This is her first major final since 1999, though she has come tantalizingly close to getting back, reaching the semifinals three times at Wimbledon. Her win at the season-ending championships at Staples Center, where she beat countrywoman Mary Pierce in three sets, represented a significant breakthrough, and it was probably no coincidence it came far from pressurized Paris.
"I think I just proved to myself, you know, I was capable of beating the best players," Mauresmo said. "I was staying on many losses against Kim at the time. I lost against Mary in a pretty tough way in New York a couple months before. I was probably wondering, 'OK, am I going to be able to do it?' All these kind of questions. It came at the right time I think for me."
Having said that, she did not fully test her nerves in the semifinals, not having to complete what was becoming a jittery match against Clijsters. The Belgian player turned her right ankle in fifth game of the third set, and though she had the ankle taped, she played only one more point in the next game before stopping, unable to continue.
Mauresmo admitted it felt "unfinished." For Clijsters, there are serious longer-term ramifications. Tests at a hospital showed she suffered a torn ligament in the ankle and she will miss at least eight weeks, according to her website. That means she will be unable to defend her titles at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells and in Miami.
"It's a shame it had to happen," Clijsters said. "I think Amelie played a really good second set. From the start, I felt that she was a little bit more aggressive on the second, third ball. ... Made a few too many unforced errors. But I got myself back together in the third set. I think it was going to be a close one."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Amelie Mauresmo (3) vs. Justine Henin-Hardenne (8)
Tonight 6:30 PST, ESPN2; Henin-Hardenne leads, 4-3
*--* Year Tournament Surface Round Winner Score 1999 U.S. Open hard-outdoor First round Mauresmo 6-1, 6-4 2003 Berlin Open clay-outdoor Semifinals H.-Hardenne 7-6 (6), 6-4 2003 Tour hard-indoor Semifinals Mauresmo 7-6 (2), Championshi 3-6, 6-3 ps 2004 Sydney hard-outdoor Final H.-Hardenne 6-4, 6-4 2004 Amelia clay-outdoor Semifinals Mauresmo 6-7 (4), Island 7-5, 6-3 2004 Olympics-At hard-outdoor Final H.-Hardenne 6-3, 6-3 hens 2005 Toronto hard-outdoor Semifinals H.-Hardenne 7-5, 3-6, 6-1