PARIS: France’s Amelie Mauresmo finally shed her choker’s tag as she claimed her first Grand Slam titles in 2006, but it was battling Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne who stole the show, ending the season as world number one.
The two players met in three major finals during the season.
And 27-year-old Mauresmo, so often condemned for big occasion meltdowns, opened her season with a first Grand Slam at the Australian Open, seven years after reaching her only previous major final in Melbourne.
Doubts remained, however, about her ability to win when it counts after her victory came when 24-year-old Henin-Hardenne retired through gastrointestinal illness when 6-1, 2-0 down.
An early exit followed once again at her home tournament in Roland Garros.
But Mauresmo had her chance to hit that winning point in Wimbledon just weeks later when she became the first Frenchwoman to lift the women’s singles title since Suzanne Lenglen 81 years ago.
“I don’t want anybody to talk about my nerves any more,” said Mauresmo after her 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Henin-Hardenne.
But while Mauresmo had the best season of her career winning four titles and holding the world number one ranking for most of the year, Henin-Hardenne came in at the death to take the number one slot.
True to her battling image the Belgian came back from an injury-plagued season to win six titles, bringing her total to 29.
She reached the final of all four Grand Slams to become the seventh player in the Open Era to achieve the feat and the first since Martina Hingis in 1997.
She won her third French Open title but lost the US Open to Russian Maria Sharapova.
And after missing the past two editions of the WTA Championships because of injury she won that title for the first time, beating Mauresmo 6-4, 6-3.
The hardship of the past year has only made her appreciate the number one ranking even more than when she first took it in 2003.
“It’s the best season of my career,” admitted Henin-Hardenne, whose retirement with a knee injury in the doubles of the Fed Cup at home Charleroi in September had handed the title to Italy.
“I’ve had an exceptional season and I think that yes I deserve this.
“I was the most consistent player. Of the 13 tournaments I competed in this year I reached the final in ten. And it’s not easy to reach the finals of four Grand Slams. I feel really proud to have been so solid.”
Ninteen-year-old Sharapova, meanwhile, proved the most consistent of the Russian contingent, who made their breakthrough in 2004 by winning three of the four Grand Slam titles.
The Russian revolution has however run out of steam since then, but Sharapova added to her collection, beating Henin-Hardenne to win the US Open, two years after winning Wimbledon.
Her defeat to the Belgian in the WTA Championship meant she missed the chance to end the season as the world number one.
But having matched her best season in winning five titles, including a Grand Slam, and having doubled her career prize money, Sharapova was pleased.
“Not being number one is not really a disappointment,” said the number two ranked Russian after the WTA meet.
“I’ve had a fantastic year. I’m really pleased with the way I played these last few weeks. I hope to continue like that in 2007.”
Meanwhile, US veteran Martina Navratilova once again bid farewell to the circuit after winning a 59th Grand Slam title, the US Open mixed doubles with Bob Bryan, just a month before turning 50.
Her countrywomen had however one of their worst seasons in tennis history, as they failed to reach the semi-finals of any of the Grand Slams.
And for the first time since rankings began there is no US woman in the season-ending top ten.
To add to the gloom their highest-ranked player, Lindsay Davenport, the world number 25, announced that she is to hang up her racket as she is expecting her first child.
As Davenport bows out and Belgium’s former US Open champion Kim Clijsters says she is ready to retire at the end of next season, former world number one Hingis rediscovered her killer instinct four years after she was forced to quit the game because of foot and ankle injuries.
The five-time Grand Slam winner returned to win titles in Rome and Kolkata, bringing her total to 42, and finishing the year as world number seven.
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