Mauresmo's First Slam Is a Set-Up

Times Staff Writer

Game, set and retirement.

Maybe that phrase should be engraved on Amelie Mauresmo's Australian Open trophy. Not only did the 26-year-old Frenchwoman win three matches at Melbourne Park when her opponent failed to finish, it happened in the final, no less, against an ailing Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium.

The abrupt withdrawal of Henin-Hardenne when Mauresmo was leading, 6-1, 2-0 and 30-0, seemed to take the air out of Rod Laver Arena, muting what should have been a joyous celebration for Mauresmo. Henin-Hardenne said double doses of anti-inflammatory pills for a sore shoulder had led to an upset stomach and a largely sleep-deprived night.

It was the first time in 41 years that a player failed to finish the women's final at the Australian Open, and it has not happened in a women's final in the Open Era at any Grand Slam.

Which raised two points. First, the issue of fairness to Mauresmo -- was this the way to win a Grand Slam title, especially the first one? Second was the matter of the paying public's disappointment and whether Henin-Hardenne should have finished the final.

"Everyone has the right to think that," Henin-Hardenne said. "But it's my health. I just have to think about myself right now because it's only me on the court. It's me that is feeling the bad way I was feeling. I don't care about what these people would say."

Henin-Hardenne was asked if she felt sorry for Mauresmo's not getting the chance to experience victory in the usual manner.

"First feeling sorry for myself, and then I can feel sorry for her," Henin-Hardenne said, smiling.

Later, tears came in the interview room during the French-language portion of the questioning, when Henin-Hardenne discussed her past physical woes. She said she thought about seeing a doctor at 3 in the morning but did not do so.

Only a day ago, Henin-Hardenne had said in a pre-final news conference that she was feeling her best in quite some time: "In the last two years I never felt as good as now." There had been little warning that she was in physical difficulty. The first came in the second game of the second set with Mauresmo serving. At 40-30, they had a terrific rally lasting 33 strokes, ending when Henin-Hardenne hit a shot wide.

That's when Henin-Hardenne approached the chair umpire and requested a trainer. She played two points in the final game, losing both of them.

Mauresmo showed her usual class after Henin-Hardenne quit playing after winning just one game in 52 minutes. She walked over to her opponent and appeared to offer consoling words. Earlier in the tournament, Mauresmo had made a point of checking on the welfare of youngster Michaella Krajicek, who pulled out because of heat exhaustion after one set in their third-round match.

On the three withdrawals -- Kim Clijsters (torn right ankle ligament) was the other, in the semifinals -- Mauresmo was almost poetic when asked about the strangeness of the situation, offering a saying in French.

"... The sadness of someone makes the happiness of others," she said.

This was the first time she had reached a Grand Slam final since losing here in 1999 to Martina Hingis. The long wait left her stumped for words, she joked on the court. But she managed to find her way, putting the years of frustration and near-misses into succinct perspective.

"I was ready to die on the court today," Mauresmo said. "That's just the way I was coming out on the court."

There was a certain inevitability about her victory. Mauresmo, despite needing to go three sets in the first round, carried a new air of confidence, acquired in part from her victory at the season-ending WTA Championships at Staples Center in November.

"I'm also here because I won in L.A.," she said. "It was only two months ago, a little bit more than this. Because at that time I proved to myself [what] I was capable of. It was not a Grand Slam, but I was capable of winning a big one against the greatest players, which maybe in some part of my mind was not for sure a hundred percent at the time.

"And I came here knowing, you know, anything can happen."

Which means she can finally open a special treat, long at the ready for her first Slam.

"I'm a wine lover, I don't have many occasions to drink my bottles of wines," she said. "It's at home waiting for me, in the dark, at the right temperature."

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