Sweet-swingin' Mauresmo finally breaks through

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It was several years in the making, but nifty Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo finally corralled that elusive first-ever major championship by winning the 2006 Australian Open.

Sure, Mauresmo got past an injured Kim Clijsters in the semis and an ill Justine Henin-Hardenne in the final, but she was ahead in both matches when her Belgian counterparts called it a fortnight.

A third-seeded Mauresmo was leading the second-seeded Clijsters 5-7, 6-2, 3-2 and 15-love when the Belgian rolled her right ankle and was unable to continue, and the smooth French star was steamrolling Henin-Hardenne 6-1, 2-0 and 30-love when the Belgian decided to surrender to Mauresmo and a gastrointestinal problem.

FYI, Clijsters regained the No. 1 ranking this week even though she'll be sidelined by her untimely injury for at least the next eight weeks.

Sure, you could argue that Henin-Hardenne was sick from the get-go against Mauresmo and was never at 100 percent during their championship showdown, but JH-H did opt to play and the French star promptly outplayed her fellow former world No. 1, moving the ailing eighth seed all over the court with an array of angled crosscourt forehands and a mix of high topspin and slice backhands.

Amelie Mauresmo
Amelie Mauresmo poses with the trophy after winning the Australian Open, marking her first Grand Slam title.
When Henin-Hardenne quit, it marked only the second time in the Open Era that a Grand Slam singles final ended in retirement and halted Mauresmo's long Grand Slam drought at 31.

Henin-Hardenne was riding a 13-match winning streak at the Aussie Open before her stomach got the best of her at Melbourne Park. She claimed the title there in 2004 and missed the 2005 edition due to injury.

Mauresmo, who'd reached at least the quarterfinals in 13 of her previous 15 Grand Slam events before making the trip to Melbourne, also dismissed fellow seeds Patty Schnyder (quarters) and Nicole Vaidisova (fourth round) en route to her huge Down Under title.

Don't look now, but Mauresmo, currently ranked second in the world, has won the last two big tourneys on the circuit, as she captured the prestigious WTA Tour Championships back in November, beating the likes of Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva along the way and her fellow Frenchwoman Mary Pierce in the lucrative final. She lost to Pierce earlier in the week in Los Angeles, but quickly avenged the setback in the all-French title match.

The 26-year-old Mauresmo has been a fixture inside the top 10 for the past several years, but she was best known for (dare I say) choking at the Slams. She's also had to battle a variety of injuries, but has placed inside the top- five three years running and has finished the year inside the top 10 six of the last seven years.

That's consistency.

Prior to Melbourne 2006, Mauresmo had appeared in only one major final -- the 1999 Aussie Open -- and she lost to the "Swiss Miss," Martina Hingis. Who knew it would take seven years for the talented star, who was still a teenager at the time, to reach another Grand Slam final?

But return she did, and with style, as she ran the table in Oz to get her '06 campaign off and running.

Mauresmo had already been ultra-popular in her native France, but she's now attained hero status there, even though she currently resides in Switzerland (Geneva, Switzerland, to be specific).

The athletic Mauresmo had also succumbed to her nerves in the past at the big events, especially at her home Slam, Roland Garros. She's a career 19-11 at the French Open, including three first-round losses and a trio of second round setbacks. She's never reached the semis at RG and has appeared in only a pair of quarterfinals in her 11 trips there. On the flip side, she's now an awesome 31-6 at the Aussie.

She'll have another shot at her beloved Roland Garros in late-May/early-June.

Mauresmo's previous best major results had come at Wimbledon (18-6), where she's performed in the semifinals in her last three trips to the venerable All England Club (2002, 2004-05).

Her Aussie title marked the 20th singles championship (in 37 finals) of her career, and the high-flying star has now won three of her last four tournaments. The other victories came in Philadelphia and at the WTA Championships last fall. She actually opened her '06 season with a setback at the hands of promising Serbian Ana Ivanovic in Sydney three weeks ago.

But in Melbourne, Mauresmo pushed her career on-court earnings over the $10- million mark and officially got that choking monkey off her back.

"I think I've achieved a lot of things now in my career," Mauresmo said. "I guess I can really be relaxed now about the way I walk on court and the way I play. Really not too much to prove, anymore."

The French star, who's also won the Fed Cup and was an Olympic silver medalist in 2004, is primed for another run at No. 1, a position she held briefly for five weeks in '04. And she's still the only French player, male of female, to ever hold down the top-ranking.

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Scott Riley
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