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Friday, February 29, 2008
C'mon, Amelie

For some years now, the WTA Tour has been specializing in stories that make you sit back, scratch your head and ask, "What's that all about?" The halcyon days when a pair of champions like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova engaged in an epic rivalry that spanned decades, or Steffi Graf piled up 22 Grand Slam titles before she called it quits, are over.

We're living in an era when women players at the peak of their power are either indifferent to the call of greatness, or sick and tired of the challenges facing any contender for Grand Slam titles. You could say they're burning out, but that's a difficult gerund to use when we're not seeing a lot of smoke or flames, the way we did when beat-up and broken down Andrea Jaeger left the tour in 1987, or when Tracy Austin was forced to quit with a bad back.

Today's players aren't burning out, they're zoning out. And you have to wonder just why the lure of the Grand Slams, and all the rewards visited on a Grand Slam champ, seem to mean so little to players now.

Look at Kim Clijsters, who just days ago gave birth to her first child, Jada. Although she won just one major (the U.S. Open), she was a perennial top-five player for years but just up and quit, at age 24, about a year ago. It isn't like Kim's biological clock was ticking, and she'll need to produce two more kids before she pulls even with Evert, the mother of three, who played competitive tennis until she was 34 (never mind Martina Navratilova, who played in a singles main draw at Eastbourne at age 45-plus!).

Now, Amelie Mauresmo is making noises about calling it quits. A few days ago, she told her native French daily, L'Equipe: "I sometimes ask myself what the hell I am doing, in front of half-empty stands. In the back of your mind, there's always a little something wondering if it wouldn't be better to stop."

This is a truly bleak and astonishingly graceless comment. If it were coming from the mouth of a journeywoman who'd spent a career trying to crack the top 50, fine. But Mauresmo is a former No. 1 who won Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 2006, wiping out the seven years of frustration that followed her only previous appearance in a Grand Slam final, in the Australian Open of 1999. So 2006 seemed to be the year in which Mauresmo proved that she's more than a talented head case with a gorgeous backhand drive and that ultimate rarity in women's tennis, a dazzling all-around game. It looked like 2007 might be the year when, with nothing to prove anymore (but an awful lot of glory to gain), she might consistently challenge Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams at the majors.

Granted, an emergency appendectomy in mid-March of 2007 kept her out for two months and, later in the summer a right adductor strain sidelined her for roughly the same length of time. But she mounted a poor title defense in Australia in January and things kind of slid away from her from that point on. She's ranked a laughable 29 now and not even sure she wants to play.

It seems that so many women today don't exactly take the money and run. They take the money and walk, because running requires too much energy.