All Court Player
By Douglas Robson
It's a humid and breezy afternoon in late March on the sandy finger of Key Biscayne, Fla., where the world's top tennis players have gathered for the $6.2 million NASDAQ-100 Open, the most prestigious tournament after the four Grand Slam events. Outside the players' lounge, the circus-like atmosphere of the circuit is in full swing. Players, agents, coaches, and hangers-on eat, talk on cell phones, zone out with headsets, and add to the general backstage din. One of the women's favorites, openly lesbian French player Am'lie Mauresmo, who at press time ranked number 6 in the world, strides over and plops down on a garden chair just outside the enclosed lounge. Her thick brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and her sleeveless top prominently displays an angel tattoo on her left shoulder.
Her handshake is firm, and her bright eyes beam. 'Everybody can do whatever they want'that's my message,' she starts off, setting up the conversation on her terms, the same way this powerful, all-court player sets up points in her matches. On court and off, she doesn't sit back and anticipate.
Mauresmo has agreed to talk with Out about her personal life as well as her tennis'something she has done in the European press but only in limited fashion in the United States. On first impression, the 2002 Wimbledon and U.S. Open semifinalist is everything you've heard and read about: sexy, affable, open, direct, humorous. But there's also something else in those inviting green eyes: the sangfroid and determination that come from choosing to live the globe-trotting, pressure-packed life of a top professional athlete as an openly gay woman'a decision Mauresmo made earlier in her career, more unapologetically than anyone before her.
Although her life has settled down more quickly, perhaps, than Martina Navratilova's or Billie Jean King's, Mauresmo acknowledges that being an out lesbian in women's tennis is still not as mundane as, say, a two-fisted backhand. When asked if she thought there would be more openly gay professional athletes anytime soon, she replies, 'I would love that day to be today. Apparently [being out] is still not good for some people. People accept it, or they don't accept it, and then I don't talk to them, and that's it.'
It's been four-plus years since the athletic teenager with the gorgeous one-handed backhand arrived on the scene'and proceeded to create one'at the 1999 Australian Open. In Melbourne that year, Mauresmo, an unseeded 19-year-old, reached her first Grand Slam final, dispatching world number 1 Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals before falling to Martina Hingis. Mauresmo's remarkable run, however, was overshadowed by her telling a French journalist that she was gay and traveling with her girlfriend. A media storm ensued, including juvenile taunts and homophobic remarks from her peers. Davenport said Mauresmo's shoulders 'looked huge' and that it was like 'playing a guy,' while Hingis sneeringly called the young French player 'half a man.' (Davenport later apologized for her comments; Hingis never has.)
The old-style gay plotline might have gone something like this: Player comes out, suffers media and public backlash, loses endorsements, but privately triumphs in newfound personal freedom. Actually, the opposite occurred. Mauresmo was mostly embraced by fans (particularly in her home country) who were put off by the insensitivity of her peers; her sponsors stood by her; and she became a huge celebrity almost overnight. But her game and personal life unraveled during the next couple of years. Her ranking fell, her stormy relationship with restaurant owner Sylvie Bourdon dissolved, and she found herself further estranged from her family, who were already upset by her private coming-out to them several months before. She later changed coaches and suffered through various injuries, including career-threatening cartilage damage in her right knee last fall.
'It's not easy to handle when you're 19 and you have things coming up at your face like this,' she remembers, her jaw tightening and her ready smile turning suddenly serious. 'At that time it was tough. It hurt.' Now, at 24, Mauresmo is finally on her game'both on court and off. The stylish, versatile player had her best year as a pro in 2002, reaching a career-high number 4 in the rankings while winning two titles and pushing her total career prize money earnings to more than $3.1 million. She has a new love in her life, Pascale Arribe, a former high-ranking national player from France. The rift with her family is mending, and she has renewed multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts with companies like Nike and Dunlop. Despite a four-month layoff following knee surgery, Mauresmo has picked up where she left off in 2002, becoming the only woman to beat both Serena and Venus Williams this season, winning one title and reaching the finals of two other tournaments.
'I think it's a life thing,' the deeply tanned player explains in slightly accented but near-perfect English. 'Everybody has, year after year, more experience and knows a little bit more about life. I'm 24, so I'm not saying I know everything, but you know, I just improve, and I see things around me, and maybe I'm more in charge of myself, more responsible for what I'm doing.'
Among the tough lessons of the past few years is that personal and public lives are intertwined. 'When you're asking yourself lots of questions, you don't concentrate so much on tennis and you're more emotional on the court at some points,' she says. 'And when I went through all the struggling in my mind, when I had that done, I was stronger on the court.' A lesson well learned: Private happiness affects performance, whether you are straight or gay.
The emotional turbulence of the past few years hasn't eroded Mauresmo's most engaging quality: her frankness. This was evident, of course, in the confident, joyous, and almost reckless way she unveiled her sexuality'openly exchanging hugs and kisses with Bourdon in Australia after upsetting Davenport. She also displayed a candor and joie de vivre about who she is that stood in stark contrast to the often troubled and ambivalent comings-out of yesteryear. Tennis legends Martina and Billie Jean were both dragged out of the closet, first by media innuendo and later by high-profile palimony suits. Navratilova did finally embrace her sexuality late in her career, but she claims that doing so cost her millions in endorsements. TV tennis commentator Mary Carillo says Mauresmo's decision to come out was different'and much bolder. 'What Martina did was brave and crazy, but she was at the height of her power and always operating under this huge financial net that she herself wove,' Carillo says, referring to the $20 million the nine-time Wimbledon singles champ earned on court. 'With Am'lie, she was young. She hadn't really declared herself as much on the tennis court as she had with her sexuality. I think she was taking a bigger risk.'
In retrospect, Mauresmo says she would have come out differently, 'in a smoother way.' The disparaging comments from some of her peers, the media mayhem, and the sudden celebrity took their toll. In addition to tabloid coverage, she was depicted as a broad-shouldered, masculine figure on the French TV program Les Guignols de l'Info, which parodies current events using puppets. At first Mauresmo naively hoped the brouhaha would subside quickly. She answered media demands but felt her words often got twisted. After a while she simply stopped talking and shut down. 'I wasn't realizing that it was a big thing,' she recalls a bit wistfully. 'I came home, and I didn't want to talk to anybody.' Still, she is unburdened by second thoughts. 'I don't regret it,' she says. 'Now I feel great having done it.'
Pioneers almost always pay a price, however, as Mauresmo was to learn. Soon after her big wins in Australia, her game went into a tailspin as she strained to cope with her newfound celebrity. Bourdon, who had no tennis background, even took over coaching duties from time to time'and sometimes lashed out at Mauresmo when she performed poorly. Floundering, she couldn't turn to her family either.
Mauresmo, the younger of two children, grew up in a comfortable home on the outskirts of Paris. Her father, Francis, is a chemical engineer, and her mother, Fran'oise, is a homemaker. Mauresmo decided at age 4 that she wanted to be a tennis pro after watching fellow countryman Yannick Noah win the French Open in 1983. By age 17, in 1996, she was the junior world champion and destined for stardom.
Around the same age, Mauresmo became aware of her same-sex attraction. She wrestled with it for a couple of years but finally accepted herself'a big first step for any person, gay or straight, she says. 'The second step is to let everybody know that it's no big deal,' she says. So she told her parents and older brother a few months before Australia because she had fallen in love with Bourdon and planned to move in with her.
'How did I do it? Probably not the right way,' Mauresmo, voice rising, says with a nervous laugh. She offers no other details. 'But I don't know if, for parents, there is a right way,' she adds. Her sudden fame after the Australian open exacerbated an already tense situation, and her mother, father, and brother broke off contact as they struggled to accept her very public lesbianism. 'It was not too good,' she says curtly of their reaction.
Even as the media fueled her emotional roller coaster and her family withdrew, the French public rallied behind Mauresmo. She was often approached in the street by all types, from children to grandparents, who congratulated her on her courage. She received 3,000 to 4,000 letters, all but a handful of which were supportive. 'It makes you proud to think that people, in fact, are not so closed-minded,' she says.
But the decline in her play prompted questions about whether she would fulfill the promise she showed in Australia and whether she could handle the pressure of being one of the world's most famous lesbian athletes. Ultimately, her relationship with Bourdon started to crack under the strain.
Mauresmo dismisses the notion that her relationship with Bourdon, more than a decade her senior, crumbled under the weight of the publicity surrounding their love affair. 'It was more personal, more inside,' she says, tapping her heart. 'I didn't feel it was good anymore. We got to a point, and that was it.'
It's no secret that Bourdon, by most accounts described as a dominating and controlling personality, enjoyed the limelight cast by Mauresmo and made every effort to soak it up. But her overbearing nature also clashed with the fast-maturing and headstrong Mauresmo. 'For a while, maybe, it was good for Am'lie,' says Philippe Bouin, tennis writer for leading French sports daily L'Equipe. 'Bourdon pushed her; she wanted to be famous. But she also made a lot of enemies. She wanted to control Am'lie, but Am'lie is also a strong character.'
Bourdon admits her 'big mouth' and directness didn't make her popular in tennis circles and that at times she was overly involved in Mauresmo's life. But she says if she was viewed as pushy or domineering, it was only because she loved the easily influenced Mauresmo.
'Maybe it was my fault because I was taking care of Am'lie,' says the 35-year-old restaurateur, who now works and lives in Saint-Tropez in the south of France. 'It's true that I was kind of protecting her, so it's easy to say I was a bad person or like a bodyguard. Sometimes Am'lie can be weak, and I was trying to be strong. But I did it with all my love.'