- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PARIS -- They watched. They hoped with all their hearts. More than 15,000 fans at Court Philippe Chatrier, including icons of French tennis Yannick Noah and Guy Forget, stood and applauded Friday after Amelie Mauresmo moved into the round of 16.
Mauresmo, still in game-face mode, strode to the net with pursed lips and a steely scowl and shook hands with the defeated Arantxa Parra Santonja of Spain. And then, finally, Mauresmo turned and smiled to the crowd, returning their fervent favor, banging her racket with her hand.
This, at last, is Mauresmo's chance. What will she do with it? No other question here at Roland Garros is more compelling -- or confounding.
Both finalists from last year are gone. No one else in the women's game is playing anywhere near her form. Mauresmo won back-to-back titles in Berlin and Rome, becoming just the third player to do it. The others -- Steffi Graf in 1987 and Monica Seles in 1990 -- both went on to win Roland Garros.
This, Mauresmo knows. God, does the broad-shouldered pride of St. Germains en Laye, France, know it.
"That's something you feel before the tournament," Mauresmo said after she had beaten Santonja 6-3, 6-2. "But you try to block it out and don't pay attention to what has been said or done around you and just focus on the court.
"That's what I'm trying to do."
"The fans seem to live and die by it here," said Lindsay Davenport, a potential quarterfinal opponent. "You can hear it when they let out a gasp. If Amelie misses a shot, heaven forbid. (Fabrice) Santoro, whoever is playing. Where in the United States, we feel more comfortable.
"It seems here, at least in the past, it seems almost like a burden. They can feel the pressure. They can feel how badly they want a French to win."
It has been 37 years since a woman born in France won the French Open. That was Francoise Durr in 1967. Mary Pierce, who won in 2000, claims French citizenship because her mother Yannick was born here. But Pierce herself was born in Montreal and even though she was widely embraced in France when she defeated Conchita Martinez she was not viewed as a full-blooded, fully believable French champion. The French journalists, for example, mock her attempts to speak French.
For someone who is only 24, Mauresmo has known more than her share of aching disappointment at Roland Garros. In 1995, at the age of 15, she was given a wild card into qualifying and won all three of her matches and landed in the main draw. She lost in the first round but has been in the field ever since. Twice, she reached the point she finds herself now, the round of 16, and last year she made it all the way to the quarterfinals.
She was blinded 6-1, 6-2 by Serena Williams. The same No. 1-ranked Serena Williams she had beaten on her way to the finals in Rome a month earlier. Given Mauresmo's history, it wasn't surprising.
For Mauresmo is infamously fragile. Her talent is indisputable; her game is powerful and her backhand is a thing of fluid beauty. Her nerves, on the other hand, are less than reliable.
Publicly, at least, she has been practicing the power of positive thinking. The pressure she felt here early in her career, she insists, is now feeding her as inspiration. Her results, over time, have improved gradually. It didn't quite look that way when she dropped the second set to Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round. But then Mauresmo rallied to win the ultimate set, 6-1.
"In the past," Mauresmo said after her second-round match, "this sort of situation used to make me very nervous and would create an inhibition instead of pushing me. Today, I took the positive side of it and I used that as positive energy.
"I think things are falling into place."
The process continued Friday. Mauresmo fell into a 0-3 hole against Parra Santonja but rallied nicely to win the next six games.
"Maybe a couple or three years ago, I probably act differently or react another way," she admitted. "That's a possibility. I felt like after coming back at 3-2, I felt I was coming back in control of the match. That's experience also.
"I learned year after year to deal with it, to handle the pressure a little bit better every time."
When Noah won the French Open in 1983, it ended a 37-year drought for Frenchmen. The victory set him up for life. Noah, whose singing talent does not approach his ability with a racket, went on to become a pop star. In a doubles exhibition before the start of the tournament, a near-capacity crowd at Philippe Chatrier embraced him fondly. The International Tennis Federation will present him with the prestigious Philippe Chatrier Award next month.
These are the kinds of things that await Mauresmo if she can just win four more matches.
Noah and Mauresmo have discussed the pressure.
"Yannick always says to stay in your bubble and not meet many people and that's it - at least as far as I'm concerned," she said. "That's the way I do it. Last year, it really worked. I think it agrees with me.
"Maybe I 'm feeling more relaxed this year, but it can change so quickly."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.