- Whit Sheppard
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's unfortunate but perhaps only fitting in a sport where injury reports are becoming as common as match recaps, that Saturday's Australian Open women's final was marred by yet another player pullout.
On a rainy Saturday in Melbourne, necessitating the enclosure of the roof over Rod Laver Arena, France's Amélie Mauresmo claimed her first Grand Slam title when Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne retired from the final trailing 1-6, 0-2, after 52 minutes of play.
Mauresmo appeared sharp and focused from the outset, and after breezing through the opening set in 33 minutes, had just taken a 2-0 lead in the second after a lengthy, 33-shot rally.
The eighth-seeded Henin-Hardenne then walked over to the umpire's chair and asked for her to summon a trainer. After being examined for a few minutes, the Belgian fell behind 0-30 on her serve in the third game before informing the chair umpire that she could not continue. She then explained to a surprised Mauresmo that she was withdrawing, and the somewhat anti-climactic celebration began.
The Belgian was suffering from a debilitating, unspecified stomach ailment that may have been aggravated by her taking anti-inflammatory medication the past two weeks for an ailing right shoulder. She slept poorly on the eve of the final and called her coach, Carlos Rodriguez at 3 a.m. Saturday morning in acute distress. But there was not much the four-time major winner could do except hope her shaky health would hold up.
"I knew at the beginning of the match I couldn't win it," she said. "I had no legs today, couldn't move. I really tried to stay in the match, but there was no chance for me. If I would have kept playing maybe I would injure something else, so that was the best decision, even if it was very, very hard for me."
Henin-Hardenne's default came under scrutiny after the match, with a sizeable contingent feeling that she should have perhaps found a way to finish the match so as to not deny her opponent her moment in the spotlight.
ESPN's Mary Carillo said afterward, "She [Henin-Hardenne] just doesn't get it, what it means to be a champion playing in front of a full house. It wasn't her moment. You don't get to dance at your own funeral."
The third-seeded Mauresmo appeared to be largely unfazed by the odd circumstances that contributed to her win.
"I'm just still wondering, you know, what happened," Mauresmo said. "The way I reacted would have been probably different if the match went till the end. But the joy is here. It's tough for Justine, but I also think I was playing some great tennis today."
But when asked if she thought her opponent should have somehow found a way to finish the match, Mauresmo left no doubt as to her own intent coming into the match.
"Well, I don't want to really comment on that. [But] I was ready to die on the court today," said the 26-year-old, who grew up just west of Paris and now resides in Geneva.
Mauresmo is a product of the French Development system and its nominal head, Christian Bîmes, the president of the French Tennis Federation, was thrilled with her victory, the first for a French player since Mary Pierce won the French Open title in 2000.
"It's important for Amélie, this victory," he said. "It's the conclusion of a very big work. The problem in her head is finished."
Mauresmo needed seven wins to claim this elusive first major title, and three of those wins came through the illness or injury withdrawals of her opponents. Michaela Krajicek was forced to withdraw from their third-round match due to heat exhaustion, Kim Clijsters tore ligaments in her ankle midway through the third set of their semifinal match, and Henin-Hardenne on Saturday.
So was the Frenchwoman the beneficiary of some well-timed good fortune during the fortnight in Australia?
"Probably," she said, a broad smile creasing her tanned face. "That's the way it is. Yeah, I think it's very strange. But in the same time, you know, I think for all of them there was a reason, and that reason was maybe the physical preparation.
"Krajicek was probably not ready to go under very high temperature. And Kim [Clijsters] probably got a little tired. She had already the hip that was not right. And then today, I'm just wondering maybe the nerves got in also."
True to form, the Frenchwoman plans to celebrate in a traditional French fashion. It turns out she'd hatched her plans long before today's triumph.
"I bought a very good bottle [of wine] about three or four years ago, [a 1937 Château d'Yquem]," she said. "I thought, 'You know, this one is going to be for my first Grand Slam title.' Now I have to open it.
"It's not going to be enough for everybody, so I will probably choose the closest people. We will have, I'm sure, more than one bottle."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the Australian Open for ESPN.com. He can be E-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.