There are pivotal moments in every athlete’s career. It might be a victory over an opponent after many losses or a title after coming close many times. These triumphs are often just a step on the way, not the final goal. Martina Navratilova lost 20 of the first 25 matches she played against Chris Evert before she beat her for the Wimbledon title in 1978. Peyton Manning beat the New England Patriots this month after seven straight defeats, two of them playoff games that decided which team would go to the Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning hasn’t gone to a super bowl yet. And Amelie Mauresmo hasn’t won a grand slam. But she took a big step yesterday by winning the 2005 WTA Championships in Los Angeles at Staples Center in the most exciting match on the women’s tour since the Wimbledon final between Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams. In a match that was more than three hours long, Mauresmo beat Mary Pierce, 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-4.
Mauresmo’s game plan counted on her conditioning to force Pierce to play long points and eventually tire. Usually you make your opponent tired by running her all over the court while you stand in one place. In this match, Mauresmo was the runner. Again and again, Pierce hit to Mauresmo’s forehand or backhand then followed with a shot deep to the opposite corner. Or she dropped the ball just over the net so that Mauresmo would have to run from a back corner all the way forward to the opposite side of the court. Again and again, Mauresmo retrieved the ball and hit a slice backhand or rolling forehand back over the net.
After exchanging breaks early in the first set, Pierce broke Mauresmo to go up 6-5. On Pierce’s first set point, twenty-three strokes went by before Pierce hit a backhand shot into the corner and approached the net. Mauresmo got to the ball and hit a spectacular running forehand crosscourt past Pierce. Everyone in the building hoped that Mauresmo could parlay that shot into a break and push the set into a tiebreaker, but on the next point she barely cleared the net with a backhand then hit a forehand into the net.
Mauresmo broke Pierce to go up 3-1 in the second set. Pierce was stretching her legs and bending her knees between points, “I had pain in my legs the entire match”, she said. It looked like Mauresmo’s plan might be working but soon Pierce was back to running Mauresmo left and right. In the seventh game, Pierce got the break back and the set went to a tiebreaker.
With Mauresmo up 4-2 in the tiebreaker, Mauresmo hit another exceptional forehand but Pierce got to it this time and returned it with such a sharp angle that it landed well inside the service line. Pierce ended the point with a ball down the line that Mauresmo could not return. This was a thrilling match. Mauresmo held on to take the tiebreaker and the match went to a third set.
With Mauresmo serving at 3-4 in the third set, Pierce ended the game with three straight errors. When Pierce was asked if exhaustion was an issue, she said, “Unfortunately not,” but the evidence says otherwise. Instead of hitting winners on important shots, now she was hitting errors.
In the next game, Mauresmo ran deep into the corner and flicked a running forehand off her shoetops and over net past an approaching Pierce for the shot of the match. If the spectacular running forehand in the first set wasn’t quite enough to propel Mauresmo beyond her fears and doubts, this one was. Pierce hit two more errors and Mauresmo could now serve for the title.
Overcoming your demons is never easy. Instead of cruising through her service game, Mauresmo found herself down 0-40. Then Pierce hit two errors, one at least six feet beyond the baseline. After she hit it, she raised her hand, palm turned up, and scrunched her face as if she’d just seen something deeply puzzling.
The match ended with one more Pierce error and Mauresmo had the biggest title of her career, a check for one million dollars, and the number three ranking.
Though many people thought Mauresmo should have won a grand slam by now, many had given up. They decided that she would never win the grand slam her game is most suited for, the French Open, because the pressure is too great for a French player and Mauresmo’s nerves are particularly fragile. Now that she has won a big title on a fast surface in a very tough match, the pressure to win a slam will be that much greater.
It doesn’t necessarily get easier after those pivotal moments.