All Court Player

9.21.2004

By Douglas Robson

On tour Mauresmo says she 'never had one problem' with other players, coaches, or parents related to her being out. At the same time, the rush to support her has been muted at best, even from her lesbian peers. Of course, the jealous and competitive world of women's pro tennis has never been long on camaraderie, a situation exacerbated by the fact that many players are still teenagers, less mature, and often chaperoned by overprotective parents and coaches.

'Everybody can live their life like they want to do,' says Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, the 2003 French Open champion. 'I have a lot of respect for Am'lie because she's a nice person.' 'It's never been a problem,' adds French number 2 Nathalie Dechy, who has known and competed against Mauresmo since she was 10 and considers her a close friend. 'What she feels inside is her business. She likes a girl; I like a boy. It's no difference.'

But make no mistake, homophobia is still alive and well on the Women's Tennis Association Tour. Image-conscious WTA officials still cringe when the topic of lesbianism is brought up. Fearful of outing someone by association, Mauresmo declined to name her friends on tour. Asked if other lesbians were supportive, even in private, she says, 'Not especially.' Nor have any followed her lead by coming out. Mauresmo claims she doesn't ask herself why this is, but the question hangs like a lob waiting to be smashed. In truth, she has been able to skirt the economic pitfalls of being out in part because of her striking looks, feminine appeal, and European background. In many E.U. countries, gay sexuality is simply not the lightning rod for controversy that it is in the United States.

But clearly, when players'even Europeans'are still afraid to come out, and parents still display overt hostility, like the father of top-10 player Jelena Dokic saying last year he would 'kill himself' if his daughter were gay, it shows that sexual tolerance in sports has a ways to go. 'The climate for gay and lesbian athletes is better today than it ever has been,' agrees Donna Lopiano, chief executive officer of the Women's Sports Foundation, 'but that's not saying much.'

Mauresmo didn't say much either following her '99 pronouncement, keeping largely silent about her personal life as she extricated herself from the difficulties that befell her in 2000. But by the end of 2001, she had returned to the top 10, finishing the year ranked number 9. She even got advice from another trailblazer: 'You did the right thing, and your life will be much easier from now on,' Navratilova told her.

Her personal life also started to turn around. After breaking off with Bourdon, Mauresmo met the 40-ish Arribe, who, by most accounts, is better equipped to deal with the rigors of Mauresmo's professional life. 'We've been together for more than two years now, and it's great,' says Mauresmo, who met Arribe at a tennis tournament in France. 'I'm in love,' she told Paris Match magazine this spring. 'I've been lucky to meet Pascale, who's made me feel strong and beautiful. For someone like me, who is never stable, it has made me serene.' Tennis insiders say Arribe understands the sport and is comfortable playing a supporting role, though she does travel to tournaments occasionally. Mauresmo has also started to mend the breach with her parents, who reportedly showed up at some of her matches in Paris'accompanied by Arribe'when she returned to the circuit after a four-month layoff this winter. 'They are starting to accept it,' she says.

Of course, the acid test of acceptance is the business world's response. While Navratilova and King both suffered financially from their reluctant outings, Mauresmo remains a highly marketable athlete, especially in Europe. 'She's a great athlete, and regardless of her sexuality we love her for what she is,' says Nike's Riccardo Colombini, global director of tennis sports marketing for the giant U.S. shoe and apparel company. Her popularity in France is such that during the French Open she was honored at the unveiling of her replica in Paris's wax museum. She is the only tennis player depicted there.

Mauresmo is confident of her commercial viability. '[Companies] see that I have an image. Gay society is also good business, with a lot of money, a lot of people, so they're not crazy,' she says of her sponsors.

With her peace of mind restored and her confidence returned, the talk these days has shifted from the bedroom to her backhand. The smooth right-hander with the looping strokes is one of the few women who can serve and volley as well as smack winners off both wings from the baseline. A deft volleyer who covers the court well, Mauresmo also has the strength and variety to win on any surface. Most experts believe the 5-foot-9 Frenchwoman is one of the few players capable of challenging the Williams sisters' stranglehold on the top rankings. 'She's strong and fast and smart,' says veteran columnist and tennis historian Bud Collins. 'I think she has the potential to win any major.'

Whether she does so will depend on how her body holds up and if she can integrate her new aggressive style. Both have presented challenges. She missed January's Australian Open while recovering from knee surgery but made an emotional comeback in February at a big indoor event in Paris. In addition to beating both Williams sisters this spring, she advanced to the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time in nine tries'a measure of success for the sometimes emotionally fragile player who has struggled to perform her best under increasingly soaring Gallic hopes.

Mauresmo also realizes that the events of the past few years have made her important beyond the world of tennis. 'I'm proud if I could help people feel better in their lives and maybe help them say things to their parents or whomever,' she says of her role as an openly gay athlete. 'I would just love that question [of one's sexual orientation] not to be asked in a few years. We're all human, and we have our qualities, our good and bad points. Personally, I feel we are on the right path. I feel like maybe I'm in a privileged world, being in the tennis field, and I never hear about the bad things. But I really feel that society is growing and is more open.'

READER COMMENTS ()

AddThis