BY Advocate.com Editors
January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET
Professional tennis careers can be counted in dog years. Twelve months tracking down yellow balls across five continents feels like seven years; a decade is a lifetime. So when Amélie Mauresmo says it's been "almost an entire life" since her breakthrough showing at the 1999 Australian Open, where she both reached the final and came out of the closet, she's not being flip. Not entirely, anyway. "I'm 100 years old, I guess," the 29-year-old says with a laugh.
Mauresmo is back at Melbourne Park for the 2009 tournament, which starts January 19, only now she's in the twilight phase of what has become a distinguished career. Three years ago she won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, spending most of the year ranked number 1, but she's tumbled from that high. Last spring, after an injury-plagued, confidence-sapping turn, she publicly discussed retirement. In 2008 she barely finished in the top 25.
A richly talented, all-court player known as much for her electrifying shot-making as for the nerves that sometimes undercut it, Mauresmo still has the tools to contend. But as she approaches her 30th birthday in July, with fresh teenage phenoms arriving all the time, the world's most visible lesbian athlete since Martina Navratilova may pull the plug at any moment. And if she does, there don't seem to be any out players to take her place.
Unlike maria sharapova or the Williams sisters -- or some of the upstart talent from Eastern Europe, like Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic -- Mauresmo isn't a global brand. Sure, she has the de rigueur sponsorships with Nike and the like, but she's always been focused more on the craft than the limelight.
I'd been pursuing Mauresmo for an interview for the better part of 20 months, so I was pleased and somewhat surprised when word came that she'd finally agreed to do it -- she rarely talks about her sexual orientation anymore. But as it turned out, my request had been miscommunicated: She thought the interview was for another publication, not The Advocate . As we sat down in the players' garden at the U.S. Open in August and I asked why she'd decided to chat, she looked confused and startled. When the tan, fit Frenchwoman, dressed in shorts and a sleeveless athletic top, finally understood what was up, she leaned forward in her chair. I figured she was about to stand, politely decline, and leave.
"So what do we do?" she asked. I said it was up to her. She sat back and barely hesitated. "Yeah, whatever."
It was with that same laid-back attitude that she came out in 1999, after advancing to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. A jubilant Mauresmo voluntarily disclosed to the press that she is a lesbian -- and that her girlfriend had accompanied her Down Under. Unfortunately, the reaction was unkind: The Australian tabloids had a field day, and crass comments from her peers didn't help. Then-number 1 Lindsay Davenport, whom Mauresmo beat in the semifinals, remarked on Mauresmo's power, saying she thought she was playing a guy. Then-superstar Martina Hingis -- who beat Mauresmo in the final -- called her "half a man" and complained about her girlfriend's presence at the match. The negative attention nearly obscured Mauresmo's accomplishment in competing for the championship as an unseeded player.